Scientists in Israel have figured out a way to turn human skin cells into healthy heart cells, which could lead to a whole new method of treating heart failure.
Lior Gepstein, Professor of Medicine and Physiology at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and team took skin cells from two heart failure patients, both over the age of 50. Then they reprogrammed them, using three genes and a molecule called valproic acid to turn them into heart cells, or cardiomyocytes.
Then the new heart cells were developed into heart muscle tissue using existing cardiac tissue. According to Science 2.0, the two types of heart tissue were beating together within 48 hours.
"The tissue was behaving like a tiny microscopic cardiac tissue comprised of approximately 1000 cells in each beating area," said Gepstein.
The best part? The cardiac tissue from the heart failure patients performed as well as similar tissue derived from healthy, young volunteers.
"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," said Gepstein.
The cardiac tissue was then implanted in healthy rats' hearts, where it started to form connections with the rats' own heart tissue.
The hope is that similar tissue could eventually be implanted in people with heart failure, where it might be able to replace or regrow damaged areas of the heart.
These types of stem cells, called human-induced pluripotent stem cells or hiPSCs, have a few advantages over embryonic stem cells. First, they avoid any ethical issues, since they're derived from the consenting patients themselves. For the same reason, it's less likely that a patient's immune system would reject the cells.
On the other hand, this method isn't likely to be available at a local clinic anytime soon. Gepstein estimates it will take at least five years to figure out how to implant this kind of heart tissue into humans safely.
The study was published in the European Heart Journal.