How can you mend a broken heart? The answer could lie in the awesome power of stem cells.
A groundbreaking new study, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, has shown how transplanted stem cells could be used to help hearts recover from the damage caused by a heart attack and reduce heart failure.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge and the University of Washington have used cardiac muscle cells and epicardial cells, protective cells taken from the outer layer of the heart wall, both derived from human stem cells, to support heart muscle cells as they grow and mature. In turn, the stem cell treatment helped to drive heart regeneration, even improving the heart muscle cells’ ability to contract and relax.
“One of the missing pieces of the heart regeneration puzzle appears to be the epicardial cell,” study author Charles Murry, from the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in a statement. “This cell makes key components of the heart during development, including the fibroblast that generates the heart’s connective tissue.
"We found that epicardial cells markedly improve the ability of heart muscle cells to regenerate the rat heart after an infarction. The upshot is that by embracing complexity and moving from monoculture to multiple cell types, we are rebuilding better heart muscle."
Although the transplantation of stem cells has only been tested out in rats with damaged hearts and 3D human heart tissue grown in a lab, there’s high hope the procedure could someday be applied to real beating humans hearts, avoiding the need for a whole organ transplant.
At least 23 million people worldwide, 5.7 million of whom are in the US, are currently suffering from heart failure. This occurs if your heart doesn’t pump enough blood around your body, meaning your tissues don’t get the oxygen they need. It can result in trouble breathing, breathlessness, and feeling extremely tired. There are numerous factors that can contribute to heart failure, but it's often sparked by a heart attack, which leaves the heart tissue scarred and unable to pump effectively. As you can imagine, it’s incredibly dangerous, with half of patients dying within five years of being diagnosed.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the power to turn into almost any type of cell in the body. They have proven to be an invaluable tool for research and treating certain conditions, such as some cancers of the blood or bone marrow, however, it’s proven more of a challenge to utilize their power when it comes to hearts and cardiovascular disease.
As such, this research focusing on epicardial cells derived from stem cells is an especially promising breakthrough for the world’s first therapy for heart failure.
“Our research shows the huge potential of stem cells for one day becoming the first therapy for heart failure. Although we still have some way to go, we believe we’re one giant step closer, and that’s incredibly exciting,” said Dr Johannes Bargehr, first author of the study at the University of Cambridge.