Scientists look to stem cells to mend broken hearts

Tue Feb 1, 2011 4:01am EST
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By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britain's leading heart charity launched a 50 million pound ($80 million) research project on Tuesday into the potential of stem cells to regenerate heart tissue and "mend broken hearts".

Scientists leading the work for the British Heart Foundation (BHF) said they hope that within the next decade they may have experimental drugs in development that would give certain kinds of cells in the heart the ability to regenerate tissue, repair damage and therefore combat heart failure.

The ability of heart tissue to regenerate already occurs in some animals, such as zebrafish, which can regrow portions of their own hearts if they are damaged.

At a briefing in London to launch a "mending broken hearts" fundraising campaign, scientists said research into stem cells and developmental biology may in future make this possible in people too.

"Scientifically, mending human hearts is an achievable goal and we really could make recovering from a heart attack as simple as getting over a broken leg," said Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director at the BHF.

Scientists in the United States reported last year that they had been able to turn structural heart cells into beating cells by identifying genes that, in a developing embryo, turn an immature cell into a beating heart cell or cardiomyocyte.

One of the British teams, led by Professor Paul Riley of the Institute of Child Health at University College London (UCL) has already found a natural protein, called thymosin beta 4, that plays a role in developing heart tissue.

He said his researchers had already had some success in using this protein to "wake up" cells known as epicardial cells in mice with damaged hearts.   Continued...