Israeli scientists for the first time succeeded in transforming the skin cells of heart-failure patients into healthy heart-muscle cells, suggesting that it may be possible to repair the organ with a person’s own tissue.
The cells from two men with the disease, once genetically reprogrammed, were able to blend in with healthy heart tissue in rats, scientists from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, wrote in the European Heart Journal, a publication of the European Society of Cardiology. Testing the cells in human hearts may be as long as a decade away, as scientists hone the technique in animal studies, they said.
The finding points to a novel potential source of stem cells, the building blocks of life which can grow into any type of tissue in the body. Using skin cells from the patient would avoid the difficulty of obtaining stem cells from embryos and may limit the risk that the patient’s immune system would reject the transplant, which can occur with cells taken from healthy people and given to the sick, the researchers said.
“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,” said Lior Gepstein, a professor of medicine and physiology who led the research, in a statement.
Heart failure is a weakening of the heart muscle that can cause fatigue and ultimately death. About 5.8 million people in the U.S. have the condition, according to the National Institutes of Health. More people are surviving heart attacks and, as a result, the number of people living with a damaged heart is increasing, said Nicholas Mills, an intermediate clinical research fellow at the British Heart Foundation and a cardiologist at the University of Edinburgh.
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“Unfortunately, the body has only very limited capacity to repair the heart following a heart attack,” Mills said in a statement. “There is therefore an urgent need to develop effective and safe treatments to regenerate the heart.”
The study was funded by the Israel Science Foundation, the European Research Council, the Nancy and Stephen Grand philanthropic fund, and the J&J-Technion research grant.
More research is needed to determine whether the cells can be produced in enough quantity for effective treatment and to develop transplantation strategies that reduce the risk of the body rejecting the cells, the scientists said. Refining the procedure will probably require funding from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, said Gepstein, whose team is conducting additional experiments in animals.
“I assume it will take at least five to 10 years to clinical trials if one can overcome these problems,” Gepstein said.