Scientists are probing whether the beating of the heart prevents this vital organ from developing cancer. 

Researchers hope the probe, funded by a charity based in Edinburgh, could unlock new cures and treatments.  

Heart cancer is an extremely rare form of the disease, affecting around two in every 100,000 people.  

Dr Serena Zacchigna MD, has spent more than 20 years investigating the reasons why the heart loses its capacity to regenerate after birth, and will investigate whether its movements may be what reduces the chances of cancer forming.  

 Dr Zacchigna, who is the PhD Group Leader in Cardiovascular Biology at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Trieste, Italy, hopes she and her team can establish a clear link that could lead to groundbreaking developments for heart cancer and, by mimicking heartbeats in other areas of the body, other more common cancers too.  

 Dr Zacchigna said: “In this project we’re looking to establish if the same mechanisms that inhibit cardiac regeneration could protect the heart from cancer. In particular, we are focusing on mechanical forces as a common mechanism inhibiting both cardiac regeneration and cardiac cancer.  

 “There is sparse evidence in literature that mechanically unloading the heart can boost regeneration, here we want to prove that mechanical forces in the heart, due to its contraction and exposure to high pressure blood, inhibit cancer cell growth in the heart and understand the molecular mechanisms beyond this effect.” 

The Herald:

 The researchers are using cutting-edge technology to test out their idea, and will build wearable devices that mimic a beating heart which could be placed around cancers at other sites to inhibit their growth.  

The researchers believe the devices could be used to fight breast and skin cancers, as they are close to the body’s surface and relatively easy to be exposed to mechanical stimuli. 

Dr Zacchigna said: “This research is important because it is a largely unexplored field, very little is known about cardiac cancer and its rarity. It could provide a transformative vision of cancer biology and pave the way to innovative therapeutic solutions”. 

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Dr Zacchigna’s research is one of the revolutionary projects supported by Worldwide Cancer Research, an Edinburgh-based charity that funds vital discovery research into all types of cancer in any location around the world.   

Currently, Worldwide Cancer Research funds more than 80 research projects across the globe, worth a collective £17 million, which are focused on finding new cures to stop cancer. 

Every year, Worldwide Cancer Research invites researchers from around the world, with the most exciting and creative ideas to apply for funding.  

Thanks to donations from supporters, the charity’s Scientific Advisory Committee, which is made up of eminent cancer experts, then assess and decide which ideas will be taken forward. 

Dr Lynn Turner, Worldwide Cancer Research’s Director of Research, said: “Worldwide Cancer Research prides itself on funding the most innovative, bold and world-leading discovery research that will help us better understand cancer and uncover new treatments and cures. 

“We’re delighted to be working with Dr Zacchigna and her team on this project, which truly encapsulates what we are all about as a charity. We only fund pioneering discovery research, where we can unlock new knowledge about cancer, which is crucial for any new lifesaving tests and treatments.  

“As we fund research into any type of cancer, Dr Zacchigna’s project really excited the Scientific Advisory Committee as not only is it exploring a very rare cancer, but it aims to take those findings to improve treatments for other types of cancer, which are more common. 

“Of course, this crucial discovery cancer research would not be possible without our amazing Curestarters. We would like to thank them for everything they do to support this vital work”.  

The Herald: The team in Trieste The team in Trieste (Image: Worldwide Cancer Research)

The project may be in its early stages, but Dr Zacchigna and her team are already discovering new information which is helping them to better understand how cancer is formed in the heart. 

Dr Zacchigna said: “We’re starting to see data that strongly supports our hypothesis. People do not know much about heart cancer because it is very rare. In our project we take advantage of the few cases in which cancer cells can colonise the heart to understand what happens in these cells that allow them to grow in the cardiac tissue.  

“We expect that some mutations, which often hit cancer cells, create the conditions for a cancer cell to grow in the heart. Knowing this mechanism would offer the opportunity to understand the mechanisms that normally prevent their growth and thus develop new therapies. 

 “It is a privilege for me to start working with the Worldwide Cancer Research community, and I would like to say a huge thanks to everyone who supports Worldwide Cancer Research, without them this work would not be possible.”