How damaged hearts could be healed by growing stem cells
06:35 GMT, 23 May 2012
Scientists claim they can rejuvenate ‘broken’ hearts using skin cells that have been turned into heart muscle cells.
New research opens up the prospect of reprogramming cells taken from heart failure patients that would not be rejected by their bodies.
It is the first time that stem cells taken from the skin of elderly and diseased patients – who are most likely to need such treatment – have been transformed into heart cells.
New developments: The research opens up the prospect of reprogramming cells taken from heart failure patients that would not be rejected by their bodies
Previously skin cells taken from young and healthy people have been transformed into heart muscle cells.
But researchers from Israel warn that clinical trials could be a decade away, as more work in the laboratory and major investment are needed.
The research is the latest advance in stem cell therapy where the intention is to infused repair cells directly into the scarred heart muscle of patients suffering debilitating symptoms such as breathlessness and fatigue.
Stem cells have the ability to become virtually any type of cell within the body, but are in short supply in adult organs.
They can be harvested from mature cells in the bone marrow or elsewhere and then transplanted back into a patient without fear of rejection in the hope they will improve the heart’s pumping action.
Several thousand patients worldwide have received stem cells from bone marrow but a study in the European Heart Journal shows the potential of using skin cells.
Caution: Researchers from Israel warn that clinical trials could be a decade away, as more work in the laboratory and major investment are needed
Professor Lior Gepstein, Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) and Physiology at the Sohnis Research Laboratory for Cardiac Electrophysiology and Regenerative Medicine, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, who led the research, said ‘What is new and exciting about our research is that we have shown that it’s possible to take skin cells from an elderly patient with advanced heart failure and end up with his own beating cells in a laboratory dish that are healthy and young – the equivalent to the stage of his heart cells when he was just born.’
In the study, skin cells from two male heart failure patients were reprogrammed in two ways: by delivering three genes to the cell nucleus and using a virus that delivered reprogramming information to the cell nucleus but which was capable of being removed afterwards.
The skin cells were transformed into heart muscle cells as effectively as those developed from healthy, young volunteers.
The researchers were able to make the cells develop into heart muscle tissue, which they cultured together with pre-existing cardiac tissue.
Within 24-48 hours the tissues were beating together in a laboratory dish.
‘The tissue was behaving like a tiny microscopic cardiac tissue comprised of approximately 1000 cells in each beating area’ said Prof Gepstein.
Finally, the new tissue was transplanted into healthy rat hearts and the researchers found that the grafted tissue started to establish connections with the cells in the host tissue.
Prof Gepstein said the team had shown for the first time it was possible to take stem cells from heart failure patients and ‘coax them to differentiate into heart muscle cells that can integrate with host cardiac tissue’.
But several obstacles lay ahead including extensive research into possible side effects such as causing cancer, and the need for large industry funding for an ‘expensive endeavour’.
‘I assume it will take at least five to ten years to clinical trials if one can overcome these problems’ he added.
Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said ‘This study managed to develop cardiac stem cells from the skin of patients with heart failure. Previously this had only been done in healthy volunteers.
‘This is an important step toward developing new treatment for over 750,000 people in the UK struggling to live their lives with heart failure. However, we still have a way to go before these findings could be applied in the clinic.
‘This is a very promising area of study, that’s why we are investing heavily in similar research as it could help us literally ‘mend broken hearts’.’