Atsushi Nakano, MD, PhD

Atsushi Nakano, M.D., Ph.D. 

Assistant Professor, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology


Atsushi (Austin) Nakano, M.D., Ph.D., focuses his research on understanding how various types of highly diverse and specialized heart cells arise from non-cardiac tissue during embryonic development. Nakano hopes this work will lead to a better understanding of heart formation, which could inform the development of novel regenerative treatments for heart disease.  

Nakano’s work as a cardiologist serves as the driving force behind his research. Despite advances in pharmaceutical and surgical treatments, heart disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, and options for improving prognosis for patients are limited. In order to address this clinical need, Nakano’s lab studies how the process during which stem cells give rise to all types of heart cells is regulated in each phase of embryonic heart development, what molecular processes make cardiac muscle cells unable to divide, and how the ability of cardiac cells to change and take on the characteristics of other cells factors in to cardiac development and disease.

Through this work, Nakano has made two key discoveries that could have a profound impact on the development of methods to create cardiac stem cells that can be used to regenerate heart tissue following heart attack. First, he discovered that immature cardiac muscle cells can change to become blood progenitor cells or the cells that make up blood vessels. Secondly, Nakano and his collaborators discovered that progenitor cells that normally give rise to blood-forming stem cells can also give rise to cardiomyocytes.

The Nakano lab has also generated an animal model of cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular beating of the heart, that will bring about a better understanding of how this condition develops and enable the testing of novel therapeutics to regulate heartbeat.

Another area of focus for Nakano is uncovering how embryonic heart formation can go awry, leading to congenital heart disease, which affects nearly one in 100 children born in the U.S. He discovered that high levels of glucose keep heart cells from maturing normally. This finding explains why babies born to women with diabetes are two to five times more likely to develop congenital heart disease than other babies. Nakano hopes this finding will enable the creation of therapeutic interventions that can cure or prevent congenital heart disease. The finding also sheds light on the nutritional needs of developing heart cells, which could be critical to methods that aim to regenerate mature heart cells in the lab.

Nakano received his medical and doctorate degrees from Kyoto University, Japan, and completed postdoctoral training at Harvard University/Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.


Honors & Affiliations


  • American Heart Association
  • International Society for Stem Cell Research
  • International Society for Experimental Hematology


Nakano’s work is funded by the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health.