Healing broken hearts

Scientists claim to have developed a new technique to mend broken hearts by turning skin stem cells into heart muscle cells, a breakthrough they say offers new hope to thousands who struggle to live with heart failure.  The new research, which was carried out on rats, opens up the prospect of reprogramming cells taken from heart failure patients that would not be rejected by their bodies, said researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel.

However, it would take up to a decade before trials can be conducted on humans, the scientists cautioned.  Previously skin cells taken from young and healthy people have been transformed into heart muscle cells. But, the new study, published in the European Heart Journal, was first in which 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.

“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,” Prof Lior Gepstein, who led the study, was quoted as saying by the Daily Mail.  In their 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 from healthy and young volunteers. The researchers were then 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 team found that the grafted tissue started to establish connections with the cells in the host tissue.

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