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Heart May Be Able to Mend Itself After Heart Attack

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"It has to be stressed that these are hearts from dead people," says Nadia Rosenthal, PhD, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study.

"This is not a success story. This was a guy who died, so whatever the cells were doing they weren't doing enough of it to keep him alive, and that has to be taken into consideration. These are wonderful observations, but they are not proof," says Rosenthal, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

But Rosenthal says she is cautiously optimistic about the potential for using the new information to develop new treatment strategies.

"In general, we're seeing that tissues that previously had no history of being able to divide, like the brain, are in fact capable of cell division, so I think that's where the hope comes from -- the heart is the last frontier in this department."

But at least one researcher questions whether Anversa and colleagues have shown proof of actual cellular division, or merely additional evidence that some heart cells may contain more than one nucleus (the central portion of a cell), and an increased amount of DNA in each nucleus. Although these could be signs that the cell was caught in the act of cloning itself, the same features have also been found in a small number of cells following a heart attack, notes William R. MacLellan, MD, assistant professor of medicine in cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"But it certainly holds out the promise that as we identify what the cells are and where they come from ... or what the actual mechanisms of the process are, that we'll be able to manipulate if for therapeutic benefit," MacLellan tells WebMD.

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