Traditional pacemakers need regular maintenance and replacing, and have to be monitored for possible infections. Researchers are working on what they call a "biological pacemaker," which would be less invasive than traditional solutions.
The new method implants a gene-carrying virus directly into the heart. This gene is able to create a "sinoatrial node," which is basically a bunch of neurons that act as a natural metronome for the heart.
Researchers conducted a study on pigs, and found that they were able to improve the heart rate of pigs suffering from heart conditions by injecting this gene into a certain area of the heart. Within two days of the implant, the pigs began keeping a regular heart pace and had stronger heartbeats than pigs with regular pacemakers.
However, this biological pacemaker hasn't been perfected yet. After just two weeks, the pigs began to regress to irregular repetitions. Because the gene is delivered through a virus, the body's immune system kicks in to fight it off.
The research team is looking toward long-term experiments now and hopes to conduct human trials in the next few years. If they do find a viable solution, this technology could be used to treat unborn infants with heart defects, and could eventually replace the traditional pacemaker altogether.