Chinese scientists identified a gene critical for the development of the network of nerves wrapped around the heart and its surrounding vasculature, according to a recently published study.
The discovery can potentially improve the prevention and treatment of diseases like coronary artery disease, a leading global cause of mortality, said the study appeared on Tuesday in the U.S. journal Science Signaling.
Zhang Zhen from Shanghai Children's Medical Center and his colleagues pinpointed the gene "Wdpcp" as an important player in coronary plexus formation in mice.
This gene is known for its role in the formation of cell cilia, or eyelash-like structures that help control locomotion.
The coronary arteries and the nerves surrounding them are essential for providing oxygen and nutrition to the heart muscle.
Their development involves two major steps: the cells from the heart's inner lining form the primitive coronary plexus, which then begins the remodeling process by recruiting cells from outside of the heart, Zhang told Xinhua.
The remodeling stage is essential for smooth muscle cells, the building blocks of artery walls, to surround the vessels in the primitive coronary plexus.
Studying mice with mutated Wdpcp, the researchers found that although the primitive coronary plexus formed properly and rather quickly, the remodeling stage was defective because of impaired migration of cells from the outside of the heart, ultimately stunting the formation of arterial walls.
Similarly, mice with a complete deletion of Wdpcp exhibited the same remodeling defects, and they are notably more severe than those of the Wdpcp mutants.
Zhang's method may serve as a viable animal model for studying the remodeling stages of coronary artery development.