New Stem Cell Technique Could Be Game Changer for Heart Disease

Heart muscle cells created from a new type of cell engineered at the Gladstone Institutes. (Yu Zhang/Gladstone Institutes)

San Francisco scientists have discovered a new technique that offers hope for treating heart disease.

When a person has a heart attack, billions of heart cells can die. Replacing or regenerating those lost cells has stumped doctors for years.

“Scientists have tried for decades to treat heart failure by transplanting adult heart cells, but these cells cannot reproduce themselves, and so they do not survive in the damaged heart," explained biologist Yu Zhang, lead author on a new study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Zhang is part of a team of researchers at the Gladstone Institutes who manufactured a new type of stem cell that is in between an embryonic stem cell and an adult heart cell.

The scientists created a pharmaceutical cocktail of various drugs. They used the recipe to reprogram a type of skin cell to return it to an earlier state. In other words, the special brew reversed the cells' development and stopped them from growing up, essentially creating teenage cells (technically induced expandable cardiovascular progenitor cells (ieCPCs) that are suspended in adolescence. (Wouldn't that be a parental nightmare.)

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When these teenage cells were injected into a mouse heart, after a heart attack, 90 percent of them transformed successfully into functioning heart cells. That means they started beating in the same rhythm with existing cells and created new blood vessels. The damaged heart improved and became stronger. The benefits to the mice lasted for at least three months.

“Cardiac progenitor cells could be ideal for heart regeneration,” said senior author Sheng Ding, a chemist and senior investigator at Gladstone. “They are the closest precursor to functional heart cells, and, in a single step, they can rapidly and efficiently become heart cells, both in a dish and in a live heart. With our new technology, we can quickly create billions of these cells in a dish and then transplant them into damaged hearts to treat heart failure.”

The question is whether these progenitor cells will work in humans as well as in mice. Ding says his team has already started experiments on human cells, and the preliminary results are promising.

Phillip Yang, associate professor of cardiology at Stanford University, shares Ding’s enthusiasm, but offers a slight caution.

“The study is a tremendous step in the field, but more definitive studies are needed to check the robustness of the method.”

Dr. Sean Wu, clinical cardiologist at Stanford University, agrees that more research is needed. “As a part of the scientific process, it would be important to have these reported findings be replicated and even better, further extended by an independent lab.”

Yang and Wu say the ultimate question is clinical effectiveness.

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Gladstone researchers estimate human clinical trials are at least three to five years away. Wu estimates that'll be closer to 10 to 20 years.

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