Researchers at Osaka University in Japan have designed the first optical pacemaker for laboratory research.
The team says that the breakthrough discovery can help scientists better understand the mechanism of heart muscle contraction.
The scientists, led by Nicholas Smith, have shown that powerful, but very short, laser pulses can help control the beating of heart muscle cells.
"If you put a large amount of laser power through these cells over a very short time period, you get a huge response," said Smith.
He further explained that laser pulses cause the release of calcium ions within the cells, which in turn forces the cells to contract.
With this technique, scientists will get a tool for controlling heart muscle cells in the laboratory, a breakthrough that may help them better understand the mechanism of heart muscle contraction.
This technology has a potential implication in studying uncoordinated contractions in heart muscle.
Heart muscle normally contracts in a highly coordinated fashion, which allows the heart to pump blood through the vasculature. However, in some people, this coordinated beating breaks down, and the heart twitches irregularly-a condition known as fibrillation.
With the help of this new laser technique, it is possible for the scientists to create a form of fibrillation in the test tube. The lasers can destabilize the beating of the cells in laboratory experiments by introducing a beat frequency in one target cell distinct from the surrounding cells.
This would enable scientists to study irregular heart beats on a cellular level and screen anti-fibrillation drugs.
But, exposing heart muscle cells to powerful laser pulses outside the laboratory may have its drawbacks. Although the laser pulses last for less than a trillionth of a second, damaging effects can build up over time and this currently limits the possibility of clinical applications.
The details of the discovery are published in Optics Express, the Optical Society's open-access journal.