London, UK (BBN)-In a first, a team of researchers from Oxford University and the New York-based Stony Brook University has used light to precisely control electrical waves that regulate the rhythm of our heartbeat.

When these electrical waves go awry, the result is a potentially fatal arrhythmia. For heart patients, there are currently two options to keep these waves in check — pacemakers or drugs, reports IANS.

However, these methods are relatively crude and they can stop or start waves but cannot provide fine control over the wave speed and direction.

So, the researchers set out to find ways to steer the excitation waves, borrowing tools from the developing field of optogenetics. When there is scar tissue in the heart or fibrosis, this can cause part of the wave to slow down.

“That can cause re-entrant waves which spiral back around the tissue, causing the heart to beat much too quickly, which can be fatal.

If we can control these spirals, we could prevent that,” explained Gil Bub from Oxford University.

Optogenetics uses genetic modification to alter cells so that they can be activated by light.

A unique protein was delivered to heart cells using gene therapy techniques so that they could be controlled by light.

Then, using a computer-controlled light projector, the controlled the speed of the cardiac waves, their direction and even the orientation of spirals in real time.

In the long run, it might be possible to develop precise treatments for heart conditions.