Dr. Phyllis Billia
Dr. Phyllis Billia's experience studying cancer plays a significant role in her heart cell regeneration research (Photo: UHN)

Now, breakthrough research at th​e Peter Munk Cardiac Centre is challenging this perception – potentially unlocking exciting new approaches to the treatment of heart disease.

Dr. Phyllis Billia and her team of researchers have shown that heart cell regeneration is possible – but that a heart cell’s ability to regenerate is s​uppressed by​ natural "roadblocks".

It’s believed that if these roadblocks can be removed, heart cells would be able to regenerate and multiply, potentially repairing damage caused by an injury – like a heart attack – to the hear​t.

“Something prevents heart muscle cells from regenerating,” said Dr. Billia. “So, when the heart’s cells are damaged, the effect is irreversible.”

Dr. Phyllis Billia
Dr. Billia's new research shows that heart cells have potential to regenerate. (Photo: UHN)

Finding clues in cancer

​After completing her PhD and medical degree at the University of Toronto, Dr. Billia continued with sub-specialty training in echocardiography and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Campbell Family Institute for Cancer Research in Dr. Tak Mak’s laboratory.

It was this experience in cancer research that played a significant role in Dr. Billia’s heart muscle discovery.

The suppression of cell regeneration is a well-known concept in the cancer world. The body’s tumour-suppressor is a protective measure that helps stop cancer from spreading.

By refocusing genetic manipulations of tumour-suppression genes on damaged heart cells, Dr. Billia has discovered a possible avenue to control heart regeneration.


Repairing from within

Through the establishment of a dedicated research lab at the Centre, Dr. Billia and her colleagues will be able to further explore the processes responsible for the heart’s inability to regenerate muscle cells.

Still in the pre-clinical stage, Dr. Billia’s work is now focused on developing a strategy to reverse the heart cell’s aversion to regeneration and, ultimately, improve​ heart function. She expects these investigations will identify potential drugs to induce cardiac muscle cell regeneration.


Envisioning new therapies

​“Right now we are still at the proof-of-concept stage, testing and identifying candidate compounds on the effects of a heart attack,” said Dr. Billia.

Dr. Billia believes the result of this work being conducted at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre could be far-reaching, impacting other important areas of medicine. The observation that heart cells have the ability to regenerate can be applied to other organ systems.

“Our ability to identify the processes needed to allow heart cells to regenerate could also be applied to other organs that do not naturally regenerate, such as the brain, kidney and pancreas,” said Dr. Billia. “This could have exciting implications for treating ot​her cond​itions, from diabetes to spinal cord injury.”

Dr. Phyllis Billia’s practice is focused on the treatment of heart failure, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, mechanical assist devices and transplantation. She's​ a partner within the Echocardiography Department​ at UHN.

Related​ links:

  • Heart scientists discover protein that may be one cause of heart failure
  • Support Dr. Billia's work​
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