Move over, cartography – this is heartography

A new, highly-detailed cellular and molecular map of the human heart could guide personalised treatments.

A research team has produced a detailed map of a healthy human heart in order to understand how it functions and what happens when it ages or something goes wrong.

Longevity.Technology: Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, killing an estimated 17.9 million people each year [1]. The new map furthers molecular and cellular knowledge of the heart and will not only lead to better understanding of heart disease, but allow the development of highly-individualised treatments and future regenerative therapies.

The research was led by investigators at Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine and Imperial College London. The team analysed almost half a million individual cells, building a vast draft cell atlas of the human heart and contributing to the Human Cell Atlas, an initiative which aims to map every cell type in the human body.

The atlas, which is the most extensive created so far, shows the huge diversity of cells and reveals an intricate network of blood vessels, as well as heart muscle cell types and cardiac protective immune cells. The map is able to predict how the cells communicate with each other to keep the heart functioning [2].

To create the heart atlas, the research team studied nearly 500,000 individual cells and cell nuclei from six different regions of the heart; the samples had been obtained from 14 healthy hearts which had been donated, but were unsuitable for transplantation.


“Millions of people are undergoing treatments for cardiovascular diseases. Understanding the healthy heart will help us understand interactions between cell types and cell states that can allow lifelong function and how these differ in diseases.”


“This project marks the beginning of new understandings into how the heart is built from single cells, many with different cell states,” said study co-first author Daniel Reichart, research fellow in genetics at HMS.

“With knowledge of the regional differences throughout the heart, we can begin to consider the effects of age, exercise and disease and help push the field of cardiology toward the era of precision medicine,” he said [3].

The researchers used a combination of single-cell analysis, machine learning and imaging techniques to precisely identify which genes were switched on and off in each cell. They found significant differences in the cells in different areas of the heart, also observing subsets of cells that were specific to different areas of the heart. They concluded that this might indicate that different cardiac areas have different developmental origins and might respond differently to treatments.

“Millions of people are undergoing treatments for cardiovascular diseases. Understanding the healthy heart will help us understand interactions between cell types and cell states that can allow lifelong function and how these differ in diseases,” said study co-senior author Christine Seidman, professor of medicine in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and a cardiovascular geneticist at Brigham and Women’s.

“Ultimately, these fundamental insights may suggest specific targets that can lead to individualized therapies in the future, creating personalized medicines for heart disease and improving the effectiveness of treatments for each patient,” Seidman said [4].

The researchers plan to further their research by investigating whether heart cells could be induced to repair themselves, something that would be of great interest to the Longevity field.

“This great collaborative effort is part of the global Human Cell Atlas initiative to create a ‘Google map’ of the human body,” said Sarah Teichmann of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, co-senior author of the study and co-chair of the Human Cell Atlas Organising Committee.
“Openly available to researchers worldwide, the Heart Cell Atlas is a fantastic resource, which will lead to new understanding of heart health and disease, new treatments and potentially even finding ways of regenerating damaged heart tissue,” she said [5].

[1] https://www.who.int/health-topics/cardiovascular-diseases/
[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2797-4
[3] https://hms.harvard.edu/news/cardiac-cartography
[4] https://bit.ly/3k8zsdP
[5] https://www.sanger.ac.uk/news_item/highly-detailed-map-of-human-heart-could-guide-personalised-heart-treatments/

Image credit: By ThePhotosite / Shutterstock

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