It was really exciting to read recently about how scientists have been working on using stem cells to repair hearts.
The work is still a long way from being able to be used in humans, but what the University of Pittsburgh team did was take a heart from a mouse, and remove all the cells from it using detergents. The remaining protein scaffold was then seeded with human heart precursor cells, which had been produced by adding a combination of chemicals to human induced pluripotent stem cells. After a few weeks, the engineered mouse heart had been rebuilt with human heart cells and began to pulse at a rate of 40 to 50 beats per minute.
The researchers found that the beating heart was not strong enough to pump blood effectively, and the hearts rhythm also differed from that of a normal mouse. The team’s next steps will therefore involve reconstructing the heart’s electrical conduction network, which could help control the rhythmic heart beats. Early days, but, it’s an exciting step!
People have been looking for some time at a variety of ways of addressing the problem of the shortage of donated organs. Wales was in the news recently when it went down the route of “presumed consent”, so you have to opt out of having your organs available for donation when you died, rather than the “opting in” system which we have in Scotland.
Approaches such as the one being explored by the scientists, known as “regenerative medicine”, may help us to find new solutions for this important problem. Heart disease is one of the UKs biggest killers, causing about 200 deaths per day.
One of the things which caught my eye in this story was the fact that Dr Yang and his colleagues who conducted this research used induced pluripotent stem cells. These are stem cells which, rather than having to be harvested from embryos, are produced in the lab. In fact, the cells which were used to populate the mouse heart started off as human skin cells. The whole area around stem cell research is somewhat controversial, but as the report from the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion and Technology Project pointed out as long ago as 2006, these induced pluripotent stem cells avoid many of the ethical issues associated with embryo-derived stem cells.
Science offers many opportunities to make things better, even perhaps to repair broken hearts.