DALLAS, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- Low-oxygen environments may actually promote heart regeneration, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found in a study.
Healthy heart cells are typically well-supplied with oxygen, though the hearts of newborn mammals have been known to have stronger regenerative properties before they are bathed in an oxygen-rich environment.
By placing mice in a controlled setting where the levels of oxygen were dropped from 21 percent to 7 percent, the UT research team observed heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes were dividing and growing. The results were published in the journal Nature.
"The adult human heart is not capable of any meaningful repair following a heart attack, which is why heart attacks have such a devastating impact," study author Hesham Sadek explained in a press release. "Though counterintuitive, we've shown that severely lowering oxygen exposure can sidestep damage to cells caused by oxygen and turn cell division back on, leading to heart regrowth."
During the study, the scientists attempted dropping oxygen levels to 10 percent, but did not observe any changes in heart regrowth. By reducing the amount to 7 percent, the mice were exposed to similar oxygen levels found at the top of Mt. Everest.
Heart muscle regeneration was observed after two weeks of exposure to a low-oxygen setting, also known as hypoxia. The study's authors say their findings may have positive implications for human patients with chronic heart problems.
"This work shows that hypoxia equivalent to the summit of Mt. Everest can actually reverse heart disease, and that is extraordinary," UT professor Benjamin Levine said.
The researchers theorize hypoxia can be used for healing other organs in the body as well as the heart.