Hope for heart attack patients as study finds stem cells repair damage

Hope for heart attack patients as scientists use stem cells to repair damaged organ in pigs

  • Scientists from drug firm AstraZeneca involved in developing new treatment
  • Involves human ventricular progenitor cells – which turn into specialised cells
  • Scientists hope to start clinical studies in humans within the next two years

Survivors of heart attacks could have better life expectancy as scientists have developed a new treatment that can mend damaged heart tissue. 

Human hearts are very poor at repairing themselves — after a heart attack, scar tissue is left which is less elastic.

But now scientists from Germany, Sweden and the drug company AstraZeneca have created a new therapy using stem cells that could do this more efficiently.

They were able to regenerate heart cells in pigs using human ventricular progenitor (HVPs) cells.

These cells play a crucial role in the formation of the organ during development and can turn into specialised heart cells where required.

Reported in the journal Nature Cell Biology, the scientists hope to start clinical studies in humans within the next two years.

Human hearts are very poor at repairing themselves — after a heart attack, scar tissue is left which is less elastic. But now scientists have developed a new treatment using stem cells (stock)

Stem cells are a basic type of cell that can change into another type of more specialized cell – such as bone, muscle or cartilage – through a process known as differentiation.

Think of stem cells as a fresh ball of clay that can be shaped and morphed into any cell in the body.

Babies have more stem cells because they grow in embryos as embryonic stem cells, used to help the rapidly growing baby form the millions of different cell types it needs to grow before birth.

In adults they act as repair cells, used to replace those we lose through damage or ageing. 

The use of the cells is increasingly being used in medicine because they have a unique ability to naturally repair a wide range of injuries inside the body.

They have so far been used to regrow torn Achilles tendons and could repair heart muscle which is damaged when the organ fails. 

Previous studies used heart cells grown from stem cells have resulted in patients suffering side effects such as irregular heartbeats and fatal arrhythmia.

The new approach uses the more flexible HVP cell.

Scientists studied the complex molecular processes involved in the repair of damaged areas of the heart muscle.

The study was carried out by researchers from the Technical University of Munich, Sweden’s Karolinska institute and the Covid jab maker AstraZeneca.

Professor Karl Laugwitz of TUM said: ‘In laboratory investigations, we were able to show how HVPs can, in a sense, track down damaged regions in the heart, migrate to injury sites and mature into working heart cells’, and prevent the formation of scar tissue.

The team used pigs to study the effectiveness of treating a damaged heart because of their physiological similarity to humans.

The researchers said their results show that damage to the heart can be reliably repaired even in large animals with no serious side effects observed.

Dr. Regina Fritsche-Danielson, Head of Research and Early Development at AstraZeneca said: ‘The treatment successfully demonstrated the formation of new cardiac tissue and importantly, improved cardiac function and reduced scar tissue.’

Professor Kenneth Chien, from the Karolinska Institutet, added: ‘This represents the culmination of two decades of our work trying to find the ideal cell to rebuild the heart.’ 

The next step will be to translate their current research findings to develop a treatment for human heart patients over the coming years.

Many heart disease conditions result in the death of heart muscle cells and blood vessels.

They are replaced by fibrotic scar tissue, which causes further deterioration of heart function.

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