The universal symbol of love, the heart is the most powerful and important organ in the human body, beating an average of 100,000 times per day, pumping 2,000 gallons of blood through our organs, body parts, and 72 trillion cells. Damage to heart muscles, as you can imagine, is permanent, irreparable, and even life threatening. Remarkably, recent research has been done on the use of adult stem cells as a regenerate for impaired parts of the heart like valves, degenerating walls and heart failure.
1.5 million heart attacks occur every year in the United States. Every 20 seconds, one American suffers a heart attack. As the leading killer in the US, heart attacks cause heart muscle cells to die by starving them of oxygen. As a result, heart muscles attempt to heal and form scars, prohibiting the heart’s pumping ability because a scar lacks the capability to contract. Diminished heart function can ultimately lead to heart failure; however, there may be a means for prevention.
Stem Cell Therapy using cells from the damaged hearts of heart attack patients has revealed beneficial effects on the regeneration of impaired heart muscles. After being prepped, the cells were reinserted into the patients, who showed less scarring and more heart function six months after the Therapy. Compared to controlled post-heart attack patients who did not receive Stem Cell Therapy, these recipients had a significant increase in the amount of healthy heart muscles with the ability to release and contract. This type of therapy can reduce the chances of heart failure by restoring normal functioning and beating to parts of the damaged heart.
Cardiomyocytes are the main working cells in the heart that are killed off and damaged during a heart attack; these cells can now be made in the laboratory using human stem cells. Through Stem Cell Therapy, human stem cells are transformed into critical heart muscle cells, where more than 80% cardiomyocytes are generated in the final population, as compared to other methods that only produce around 30%. This particular method creates these important cells in abundance, supplying large numbers to a damaged heart, which is extremely beneficial after a heart attack (as stated above). Also, it allows for increased research on drug toxicities and diseases. Scientists can model diseases in laboratories using cells from adults with diseased hearts. In the future, scientists hope to be able to completely replace dying cardiomyocytes, caused by heart disease (which is the leading cause of death in the world).
Similarly, in Israel, researchers have discovered a technique where they take skin cells from elderly patients with heart failure and return those cells to an embryonic state; then, the cells are transformed into beating heart cells (cardiomyocytes) that are able to function with the patients’ healthy heart tissue. While this strategy seems appealing, more research needs to be done on the production of the cells in mass numbers. What is achieved in a laboratory petri dish is only a fraction of what needs to happen in a human heart.
The regenerative strategy seen in repairing hearts and heart tissue has opened the door to the possibilities of this type of treatment on other organs. Stem cell therapy is a biological medicine that allows physicians to correct heart tissue naturally.
Copyright © 2012 Alex Martin MD & Francesca Coxe, Los Angeles. Edited by Devin Stone
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