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Associate Professor of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine

Mathilda MommersteegWhat is the most significant discovery to come from your lab?

During a heart attack, part of the heart dies and will be replaced by scar tissue. As the heart cannot pump as well anymore, heart failure can develop. In contrast to humans, some fish can repair their heart muscle after damage. We have discovered a new model for heart regeneration research, Astyanax mexicanus, also called the Mexican cavefish. Astyanax mexicanus is an extraordinary species of fish living in rivers and caves in Mexico. Over the course of several millions of years, flooding during rainy season in Mexico caused surface fish living in rivers to enter into caves. Subsequently, with retreating river waters, river fish got trapped in numerous caves and evolved into different cavefish populations.  The lack of light in the caves caused them to go blind and lose all their pigment, not needed in the absence of light. Instead, they developed other features necessary for surviving in the cave environment such as a greater resistance to starvation and ways to detect food. We have discovered that the river surface fish regenerate their heart completely, while, remarkably, cavefish cannot and form a permanent fibrotic scar, similar to the human injury response.

Tell us about your current research project

My laboratory now focusses on further understanding the mechanisms underlying natural heart regeneration using this fish model. For example, the cavefish have adapted their metabolism to be able to cope with long periods of food scarcity and we are interested in understanding how this affects heart regeneration. By directly comparing river surface fish and cavefish, we hope to identify what is unique to the surface fish heart that it can regenerate. Mexican cavefish will allow to approach human heart repair from a completely different angle which will aid in the discovery of novel therapeutic approaches to induce heart repair in the growing population that survives heart attacks and lives with the long-term resulting consequences of heart failure.

What is the next step for your research? 

We are looking forward to soon be moving into the new Institute of Developmental and Regenerative Medicine in Oxford, which will allow different groups with a similar goal to closely work together in a stimulating environment, which will help speed up the discovery of new important findings.

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