Stem Cells Have Been Used To Regenerate Damaged Monkey Hearts

A Japanese macaque, also known as a snow monkey, and its child. onemu/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 11 Oct 2016, 16:21

It’ll be awhile before scientists are able to use stem cells to grow entire organs within a laboratory, but it’s safe to say that every day the world inches a little closer to this dream. Now, in what is undoubtedly a major step forwards, a team of researchers has used skin-derived stem cells to revitalize the hearts of five living macaque monkeys.

Stem cells are able to turn into many different types of cell within the body. Unfortunately, the hearts of many animals have lost the ability to use stem cells to regenerate damaged or destroyed heart tissue. At best, only patchwork-like repairs can be made.

However, recent research has shown that specially engineering “progenitor” cells – those similar to stem cells but those already programmed to become a specific cell type – can be injected into the damaged hearts of mice, where they spontaneously make new vessels and tissue.

This new Nature study has revealed that a similar technique has worked successfully on monkeys.

Starting with skin cells from a single macaque, the team reverse engineered them back into neutral, juvenile cells known as pluripotent stem cells, those that have the capability of differentiating into any other type of cell. They were injected into the damaged hearts, and over the course of several weeks, they successfully integrated with the heart cells and began regenerating lost or damaged tissue.

Fairly rapidly, the ability of those hearts to contract improved, but the team did note that the macaques had some trouble with irregular heartbeats on occasion, a condition known as arrhythmia. “We still have some hurdles,” study co-author Yuji Shiba, a researcher at Shinshu University, told AFP.

Although the monkeys lived throughout the entire three-month-long study period, they were euthanized at the end of it – so the healing effect of these stem cells beyond this time isn’t yet clear.

Stem cell experimentation in action. It's a tricky process with many pitfalls. VILevi/Shutterstock

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