For you hopeless romantics that can’t take another heartbreak – especially with Valentine’s Day on the horizon – researchers from Pennsylvania State University, U.S., may be able to mend any broken hearts.
Well, sort of.
The stem cell researchers have made a significant breakthrough in heart health, using stem cell injections to regenerate the epicardium, or the outer layer of the heart. The team notes the importance of this coup, as it brings them that much closer to regenerating an entire heart wall.
The United States Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) estimates someone in the U.S. alone suffers from a heart attack every 43 seconds. The work done by the Penn State team may be a major development in that regard, treating patients who have had heart attacks by replacing their damaged heart tissues.
WHY STEM CELLS?
Stem cells were the medium of choice thanks to their exclusive ability to differentiate.
To illustrate the flexibility of stem cells, picture them as a fresh ball of Play-Doh. Assuming the sculptor is skilled, that clay can be molded into any cell shape in the body. For example, embryonic stem cells found in embryos allows the growing fetus to form the millions of different cell types it needs before birth. In adults, stem cells have found a niche as repair cells, in an ‘out with the old (cells), in with the new (cells)’ type of transaction.
FINDING THE PATH
The key to unlocking the potential of heart regeneration was to build on what was already known: specifically, how Wnt signaling pathways work. This pathway is a group of protein conduits that admits signals into a cell through cell-surface receptors.
Through clinical trial, the researchers discovered that certain chemicals, when exposed to the Wnt signaling pathways, amazingly morphed cardiac stem cells into myocardium cells. The myocardium cells, which comprises the central layer of the heart, could in turn be transformed once more into epicardium cells.
“In 2012, we discovered that if we treated human stem cells with chemicals that sequentially activate and inhibit Wnt signaling pathway, they become myocardium muscle cells,” says Xiaojun Lance Lian, leader of the study at Penn State, and assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering and Biology.
“We needed to provide the cardiac progenitor cells with additional information in order for them to generate into epicardium cells, but prior to this study, we didn’t know what that information was.
“Now, we know that if we activate the cells’ Wnt signaling pathway again, we can re-drive these cardiac progenitor cells to become epicardium cells, instead of myocardium cells.”
ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL
The Penn State researchers are enthusiastic with their advancements; they suggest this newfound knowledge is the first step towards eventual regeneration of a complete heart wall. They’re encouraged by how the manufactured epicardium cells, generated from cardiac progenitor stem cells, were very close to the epicardium cells developed organically in humans.
Recuperation from heart attacks would be drastically improved, for one. The concept of implanting the re-purposed epicardium cells into heart attack victims could be done now, assuming the CDC’s approval and successful clinical studies.
“Heart attacks occur due to blockage of blood vessels,” explains Lian.
“This blockage stops nutrients and oxygen from reaching the heart muscle, and muscle cells die. These muscle cells cannot regenerate themselves, so there is permanent damage, which can cause additional problems. These epicardium cells could be transplanted to the patient and potentially repair the damaged region.”
Now, the team has their sights set on advancing their groundwork on endocardium cell regeneration, with the penultimate goal of creating every layer of a human heart from the same heart progenitor stem cells.
“We are making progress on that inner layer, which will allow us to regenerate an entire heart wall that can be used in tissue engineering for cardiac therapy,” said Lian.
Lian & the Penn State team aren’t the only ones making ground in heart health & stem cell technology. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital developed a stem cell technique that repairs hearts that were once unsuitable for transplant. And a Japanese research team developed a similar method that mends patient’s hearts with differentiated skin stem cells that’re injected right into the heart.
Evidently, creating a lab-grown heart compatible for transplant isn’t so much of an ‘if’ anymore, but ‘when’.
The entirety of the research was recently published in the Nature journal Biomedical Engineering.
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