By Claire Bates
PUBLISHED: 18:00 EST, 22 May 2012 | UPDATED: 18:00 EST, 22 May 2012
Heart attack patients could one day have their organ repaired using their own skin cells, say scientists.
A team from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have demonstrated they can transform skin cellsobtained from heart failure patients into stem cellsand use these to generate new heart muscle cells.
The cells are fully functionaland capable of working together with adult heart muscle cells.
Previous studies have shown it is possible to derive stem cells from young and healthy people and transform these into heart cells, but it was not clear if this would work for elderly and diseased patients.
Research leader Professor Lior Gepstein said: ‘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.’
Using a patient’s own cells would avoid the problem of patients’ immune systems rejecting the cells as ‘foreign’.
Researchers took skin cells from two male heart failure patients aged 51 and 61, and reprogrammed them by delivering three genes followed by a small molecule called valproic acid to the cell nucleus.
They did not include a transcription factor called c-Myc in their reprogramming cocktail, as although it has been used for creating stem cells, it is a known cancer-causing gene.
The resulting stem cells were able to differentiate to become heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) just as effectively as those that had been developed from healthy, young volunteers who acted as controls for the study.
Researchers were then able to make the cardiomyocytes develop into heart muscle tissue, which was joined together with existing cardiac tissue and within 48 hours the tissues were beating together.
The new tissue was transplanted into healthy rat hearts and the researchers found it started to establish connections with the cells in the host tissue.
Writing for the European Heart Journal, the researchers say much further research is needed to make sure they could scale up their study to make a sufficient amount of cells for a reasonable cost.
They added it could take five to ten years before clinical trials start.
Dr Nicholas Mills, Consultant Cardiologist from the Universityof Edinburgh, said there was an urgent need to develop effective and safe treatments to regenerate the heart as more people are surviving cardiac arrests than ever before.
He said of the latest study: ‘Thistechnology needs to be refined before it can be used for the treatment ofpatients with heart failure, but these findings are encouraging and take us astep closer to our goal of identifying an effective means of repairing theheart and limiting the consequences of heart failure.’
The research has been published in The European Heart journal.