Close up of researcher working with samples in a lab

Research projects

Treating cancer with a heart beat

Dr Serena Zacchigna
Project period
May 2024 - April 2026
Research Institute
International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology
Cancer types
General cancer research
Heart cancer
Award amount

Project aim

Dr Zacchigna and her team are trying to understand the role of heart beating in making cancer so rare in this organ. They are hoping to develop the first ever wearable device to stop cancer spreading by mimicking the beating of the heart.

Hope for the future

You have probably never heard of heart cancer. Heart cancer is very rare. This could be because adult heart cells do not divide which means that they do not develop mutations from errors in cell replication, which is usually one of the main reasons behind cancer. It has been proposed that mechanical forces that occur in a beating heart could stop heart cells from dividing and spreading. Dr Zacchigna thinks that the same reason could be behind cancer cells not growing inside the heart.

The team would like to understand the role of certain genes involved in the mechanical beating of the heart in stopping cancer from spreading. Based on these studies into why cancer of the heart is so rare, they hope they can develop treatments to stop cancer developing in other organs. Dr Zacchigna and her team want to develop the first ever wearable device that mimics the beating of the heart to stop cancer. The researchers hope that this can pave the way for a mechanical therapy that will be an innovative new treatment for many people with cancer. 


Head shot of Dr Serena Zacchigna

Meet the scientist

Serena is a mother of two children, Margherita and Giovanni. She travels a lot for work, so when she is  home she likes to care for her kids, their school and sport activities. She loves trail running particularly uphill, the harder the better. And there are nice tracks around the campus where she works, so lunch time a bunch of people meet and go for a run. 

The science

Heart cancer is very rare. Similar to many muscle cells, the adult heart cells are known not to divide, which makes it not surprising that primary heart cancer (cancer that originates in the heart) is very rare. Secondary heart cancer, where cancer cells from other organs travel to the heart through the blood stream, is also very rare. The reason behind this is not clear especially since that blood is constantly flowing into the heart. The mechanical load the heart beating puts on the heart cells could play a role behind cancer cells not growing inside the heart.  

Dr Zacchigna and her team have previously shown that cancer cells implanted into heart tissue in the lab grew much less when they were under a mechanical load.  Now they would like to find the genes associated with the mechanics of the heart beating. Understanding the role of these ‘mechano-sensing’ genes in stopping cancer will provide the basis for a novel cancer therapy based on mechanical stimulation in the heart.

The team also have an incredible idea to develop a wearable device to mimic the heart beat to mechanically stimulate cancer cells. They hope that this will stop cancer cells from growing. If their idea works, this will offer a brand new way to treat cancer, particularly skin cancer and breast cancer which could be easily reached with a wearable device.

Head shot of Dr Serena Zacchigna Dr Serena Zacchigna
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