Scientists Turn Skin Cells Into A Beating Heart

By David Wharton | 9 years ago

One of the perks of writing for GFR is that, every once in a while, you’ll get to write up a story that well and truly blows your mind. This is one of those moments, because Reuters reports that Israeli research scientists have managed to harvest skin cells from patients suffering heart failure and transform the cells into healthy heart tissue. The long view of this is that this research could someday allow doctors to “reprogram patients’ cells to repair their own damaged hearts.” Got a bum ticker? Sit right down and let your body clean up the mess itself.

Being able to use this process to heal heart failure is still a ways down the road, but it’s still a major step forward in treating an all-too-common health problem, and could someday provide help for patients who must otherwise rely on machines or the hope of a transplant. Technion-Israel Institute of Technology project head Lior Gepstein explained the significance of the research like so:

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.

So, just how did this process work? The scientists harvested skin cells from two male heart-failure patients, a 51-year-old and a 61-year-old, and then added three genes and a molecule called valproic acid. This transformed the cells into embryonic stem cells that could transform into heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes. The researchers then mixed the new heart tissue with existing tissue, and within 48 hours the two strains were beating together as if they always had been.

While the results are exciting, there are still many years of research and testing ahead. Most notably, scientists have yet to determine whether the stem-cell-generated heart tissue can successfully be implanted in the original patient without the patient’s body rejecting it.