For the first time, scientists have successfully taken skin cells from heart failure patients and reprogrammed them into healthy, beating heart muscle cells that can integrate with surrounding tissue.
It’s likely that the procedure will need another decade of testing and fine-tuning, but researchers say the results of their study could mean a future of treating heart damage with a patient’s own reprogrammed cells.
In the current study, researchers in Haifa, Israel took skin cells from two male heart failure patients (ages 51 and 61) and transformed them by adding three genes and a small molecule called valproic acid to the cell nucleus. The team then mixed the newly formed cells with pre-existing heart tissue in the lab and watched as the cells began to beat together within a matter of days.
“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,” said Lior Gepstein, the study’s lead author, in a statement.
In the final step of the experiment, the combined tissue was transplanted into rats, where it went on to integrate with the animals’ surrounding heart cells.
If the method is successful in humans, it could eliminate worries surrounding immune rejection since the cells would be a patient’s own. The procedure would also avoid the ethical dilemmas often brought up by embryonic stem cell use since the reprogrammed stem cells do not use embryos.
Researchers still have a long road ahead, however, as testing is still in the early stages and it could be years before clinical trials on humans can begin. Future tests will need to replicate the experiment on a greater number of subjects and should include transplantation into animals experiencing heart problems (the rats in the current experiment had healthy hearts).
“This is an interesting paper, but very early and it’s really important for patients that the promise of such a technique is not oversold,” John Martin, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London, told Reuters. ”The chances of translation are slim and if it does work it would take around 15 years to come to clinic.”
The full study can be found in the European Heart Journal.
Image: Wikimedia Commons