A research team from Penn Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has been studying CAR T-cell therapy, which is used to fight cancer, in the treatment of heart disease.

CAR T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy that leverages patients’ cells against cancer.

In the latest study, researchers genetically modified T-cells to target and eliminate activated fibroblasts associated with cardiac fibrosis.

Cardiac fibrosis is found in many heart diseases and is responsible for stiffness and reduced function of the organ.

In mice models with heart disease caused by high blood pressure, CAR T-cell therapy significantly decreased cardiac fibrosis, restoring heart function after four weeks.

Penn Medicine cardiovascular research professor Jonathan Epstein said: “While much more research is needed before we can introduce this approach into the clinical setting, this marks a significant step forward in our efforts to treat and potentially reverse a condition that accelerates the progression of heart failure.”

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Research suggests that activated cardiac fibroblast removal can help the heart ventricles relax by decreasing stiffness. Currently, no treatments are available to address the fibrosis directly.

To address this, researchers used an RNA sequence database to discover the fibroblast activation protein (FAP) expressed by activated fibroblasts.

The team then programmed the genetically modified T-cells to identify and attack the FAP.

The engineered FAP CAR T-cells were administered into mice at week one and two to study their ability to decrease FAP-expressing cardiac fibroblasts.

In addition to reduced cardiac fibrosis at week four, the CAR T-cell therapy led to improvements in diastolic and systolic function, said the Penn Medicine team.

While further studies must be performed to validate FAP as an optimal target and determine safety risks, the new findings are expected to allow the use of the CAR T therapy beyond cancer.