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

Alan Berry, Wellcome Trust (Oct 2014), £749,865

Paul Knox, EU (Oct 2014), £167,229

Andrew Peel, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £371,598

Lars Jeuken, BBSRC (Sep 2014), £313,463

Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Aug 2014), £355,253

Stuart Egginton, BHF (Aug 2014), £271,094

Darren Tomlinson, Mike McPherson, Technology Strategy Board (Aug 2014), £98,665

Peter Henderson, Leverhulme Trust (Aug 2014), £15,222

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

Peter Stockley, Neil Ranson, BBSRC (Jul 2014), £455,787

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

Ryan Seipke, British Society Antimicrobial Chemistry (Jun 2014), £11,960

John Trinick, BHF (Jun 2014), £222,614

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

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

Christine Foyer, Royal Society (May 2014), £24,000

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

Elwyn Isaac, DEFRA (Apr 2014), £126,512

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

Tim Benton, Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £24,969

Bill Kunin, Technology Strategy Board (Apr 2014), £21,244

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

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

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

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, British Potato Council (Mar 2014), £69,953

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

Anastasia Zhuravleva, Royal Society (Mar 2014), £14,973

Urwin, Howard Atkinson, Agriculture & Horticulture Develpmnt Brd (Mar 2014), £13,990

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

Eileen Ingham, Joanne Tipper, Depuy International Ltd (Jan 2014), £48,121

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

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

Tim Benton, NERC (Dec 2013), £31,422

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

Recent News

Guest lecture from Leeds Biochemistry alumnus, Dr Nicholas Lydon

2nd September 2014

Leeds University alumnus Dr Nicholas Lydon, FRS, will visit the University on Monday 29 September to deliver a guest lecture.

more

Healthy Brains at Leeds: Demystifying Dementia event

29th August 2014

Healthy Brains at Leeds: Demystifying Dementia event

more

‘Tickling’ your ear could be good for your heart

20th August 2014

Stimulating nerves in your ear could improve the health of your heart, researchers have discovered.

more

Triathlon win for Alistair Brownlee

28th July 2014

Congratulations to Leeds alumni Alistair and Jonny Brownlee who won a gold and silver medal respectively in the Triathlon at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

more

HRH meets 'Frank' the cycling skeleton

22nd July 2014

HRH the Countess of Wessex visited researchers from the Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (iMBE), University of Leeds at the Great Yorkshire Show recently.

more

World-leading biophysicist to head Biological Sciences at Leeds

21st July 2014

World-leading biophysicist to head Biological Sciences at Leeds

more

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

Impact Stories

The Yorkshire Dales Environment Network is a partnership involved in the daily life and long term protection of the Yorkshire Dales.
more

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

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

Research by Dr Simon Goodman shows how large the effect of human activity has been on the Caspian Seal.
more

All impact stories