Faculty of Biological Sciences

Research Bulletin

Human heart development slower than other mammals

21st February 2013

The walls of the human heart are a disorganised jumble of tissue until relatively late in pregnancy despite having the shape of a fully functioning heart, according to a pioneering study.

Human heart development slower than other mammalstitle=

A faculty-led team developing the first comprehensive model of human heart development using observations of living foetal hearts found surprising differences from existing animal models.

Although they saw four clearly defined chambers in the foetal heart from the eighth week of pregnancy, they did not find organised muscle tissue until the 20th week, much later than expected.

Developing an accurate, computerised simulation of the foetal heart is critical to understanding normal heart development in the womb and, eventually, to opening new ways of detecting and dealing with some functional abnormalities early in pregnancy.

Studies of early heart development have previously been largely based on other mammals such as mice or pigs, adult hearts and dead human samples. The Leeds-led team is using scans of healthy foetuses in the womb, including one mother who volunteered to have detailed weekly ECG (electrocardiography) scans from 18 weeks until just before delivery.

This functional data is incorporated into a 3D computerised model built up using information about the structure, shape and size of the different components of the heart from two types of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans of dead foetuses’ hearts.

Early results from the project, which involves researchers from Leeds, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Nottingham, the University of Manchester and the University of Sheffield, show that the human heart may develop on a different timeline from other mammals.

While the tissue in the walls of a pig heart develops a highly organised structure at a relatively early stage of a foetus’ development, a paper from the Leeds-led team published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface Focus reports that the there is little organisation of the human heart’s cells until  20 weeks into pregnancy.

A pig’s pregnancy lasts about three months and the organised structure of the walls of the heart emerge in the first month of pregnancy. The new study only detected similar organised structures well into the second trimester of the human pregnancy. Human foetuses have a regular heartbeat from about 22 days.

Dr Eleftheria Pervolaraki, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds’ School of Biomedical Sciences, said: “For a heart to be beating effectively, we thought you needed a smoothly changing orientation of the muscle cells through the walls of the heart chambers.  Such an organisation is seen in the hearts of all healthy adult mammals.

“Foetal hearts in other mammals such as pigs, which we have been using as models, show such an organisation even early in gestation, with a smooth change in cell orientation going through the heart wall. But what we actually found is that such organisation was not detectable in the human foetus before 20 weeks,” she said.

Professor Arun Holden, also from Leeds’ School of Biomedical Sciences, said: “The development of the foetal human heart is on a totally different timeline, a slower timeline, from the model that was being used before. This upsets our assumptions and raises new questions. Since the wall of the heart is structurally disorganised, we might expect to find arrhythmias, which are a bad sign in an adult. It may well be that in the early stages of development of the heart arrhythmias are not necessarily pathological and that there is no need to panic if we find them. Alternatively, we could find that the disorganisation in the tissue does not actually lead to arrhythmia.”

A detailed computer model of the activity and architecture of the developing heart will help make sense of the limited information doctors can obtain about the foetus using non-invasive monitoring of a pregnant woman.

Professor Holden said: “It is different from dealing with an adult, where you can look at the geometry of an individual’s heart using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) or CT (Computerised Tomography) scans. You can’t squirt x-rays at a foetus and we also currently tend to avoid MRI, so we need a model into which we can put the information we do have access to.”

He added: “Effectively, at the moment, foetal ECGs are not really used. The textbooks descriptions of the development of the human heart are still founded on animal models and 19th century collections of abnormalities in museums. If you are trying to detect abnormal activity in foetal hearts, you are only talking about third trimester and postnatal care of premature babies. By looking at how the human heart actually develops in real life and creating a quantitative, descriptive model of its architecture and activity from the start of a pregnancy to birth, you are expanding electrocardiology into the foetus.”

Image information: A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of the heart of a 139-day-old foetus, seen from the top. The red colour highlights muscle cells

Further information


Recent Grants

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in the School of Chemistry), EPSRC (Jul 2014), £819,880

Sheena Radford, Univesity of Michigan (Jul 2014), £138,452

Chris West, Leverhulme Trust (Jun 2014), £181,241

Jon Lippiat, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (May 2014), £125,174

David Brockwell, Sheena Radford, Medimmune Ltd (Apr 2014), £337,661

Peter Stockley, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £251,019

Mike McPherson, Wellcome Trust (Apr 2014), £146,596

Andrew Macdonald, Kidney Research Fund UK (Apr 2014), £127,237

Mike McPherson (and colleagues in School of Design), Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £114,350

Paul Millner, Peter Stockley, Darren Tomlinson, YCR (Apr 2014), £95,874

Carrie Ferguson, Karen Birch, Shaunna Burke, Heart Research UK (Apr 2014), £60,140

Dave Westhead, MRC (Apr 2014), £18,304

Brendan Davies, BBSRC (Mar 2014), £451,829

Jim Deuchars, MRC (Mar 2014), £300,000

Adam Kupinski, Children with Cancer (Mar 2014), £50,000

Alison Baker, Steve Baldwin, BBSRC (Feb 2014), £403,439

Sarah Zylinski, BBSRC (Feb 2014), £355,869

Dave Lewis, Nigel Hooper, Tony Turner, Hugh Pearson, James Duce, Alzheimer's Society (Feb 2014), £29,871

Ronaldo Ichyama, Samit Chakrabarty, International Spinal Research Trust (Jan 2014), £304,600

Brendan Davies, BBSRC/Bayer Crop Science SA-NV (Jan 2014), £470,053

Adrian Goldman, Steve Baldwin, Stephen Muench, Thomas Edwards, Arwen Pearson , BBSRC (Jan 2014), £467,103

Stefan Kepinski, BBSRC (Jan 2014), £359,269

Elwyn Isaac, EU (Jan 2014), £179,445

Dave Westhead, Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (Jan 2014), £105,937

John Barr, Thomas Edwards, MRC (Dec 2013), £469,505

Alex O'Neill, MRC (Dec 2013), £349,017

Darren Tomlinson, Yorkshire Cancer Research (Nov 2013), £142,334

Nikita Gamper, MRC (Nov 2013), £336,563

Keith Hamer, Alison Dunn, NERC (Nov 2013), £47,233

Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2013), £749,365

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, BBSRC (Oct 2013), £360,508

Eileen Ingham, Stacey-Paul Wilshaw, NHS R&D (Oct 2013), £356,623

Sheena Radford, BBSRC (Oct 2013), £329,906

Nigel Hooper, Alzheimer's Research (Oct 2013), £327,075

Eileen Ingham, EPSRC (Oct 2013), £276,751

David Beech, BHF (Oct 2013), £109,974

Mark Harris, Medical Research Foundation (Oct 2013), £34,455

James Dachtler, Royal Society (Oct 2013), £15,000

Ade Whitehouse, Teresa Rosenbaum Golden Charitable Trust (Oct 2013), £10,000

Jurgen Denecke, BBSRC (Sep 2013), £382,093

Andy Cuming, EU (Sep 2013), £257,714

Paul Knox, BBSRC (Sep 2013), £411,948

Vas Ponnambalam, Leverhulme Trust (Sep 2013), £245,031

Peter Meyer, EU (Sep 2013), £242,166

Dave Rowlands, Nic Stonehouse, EU (Sep 2013), £202,556

Derek Steele, BHF (Sep 2013), £103,629

Joan Boyes, NC3Rs (Sep 2013), £90,000

Peter Stockley, Royal Society (Sep 2013), £11,400

Darren Tomlinson, Leverhulme Trust (Sep 2013), £5,645

Nic Stonehouse, Dave Rowlands, BBSRC (Aug 2013), £574,906

Eileen Ingham, Wellcome Trust (Aug 2013), £191,470

Adrian Goldman, Royal Society (Aug 2013), £75,000

Mike McPherson, Wellcome Trust (Aug 2013), £40,000

Recent News

Researchers find clue to stopping Alzheimer's-like diseases

2nd July 2014

Tiny differences in mice that make them peculiarly resistant to a family of conditions that includes Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease may provide clues for treatments in humans. more

Celebrating the work of a neglected scientific pioneer

18th June 2014

A University of Leeds academic has shed important new light on the fascinating story of a pioneer whose contribution to one of science's biggest discoveries has long been overlooked. more

Big data to help blood cancer patients

22nd May 2014

A pioneering database at the University of Leeds will help match patients with certain types of blood cancers to the best treatments. more

Impact Stories

Professor John Altringham's research on the conservation of bat species has promoted the need for evidence based conservation practices
more

Dr Utley has carried out research over a number of years to increase understanding of the issues faced by children with varying types of movement and co-ordination difficulties.
more

Dr Simon Goodman has investigated the disease risks to the native Galapagos fauna.
more

Research by Dr Keith Hamer on the foraging and breeding ecology has had impact in the understanding of interactions between seabirds and fisheries.
more

All impact stories