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Damaged Heart Cells Made Healthy Again in Lab

Ultimate goal is cellular 'patch' after heart attack
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Randy Dotinga

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Aug. 22 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists report that they've transformed one kind of human heart cell into another in laboratory experiments, a promising development in the bid to find ways to repair damage from heart attacks.

The research is far from ready for prime time, however, and it's not clear if the strategy will work in live people.

Still, the treatment is a promising approach to regenerating organs "that would harness cells already within a damaged organ and convert them to the type of cells that are needed for that organ to function," said study co-author Dr. Deepak Srivastava, director and senior investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco.

Heart attack can occur when a blockage in a vessel prevents blood from getting to a part of the heart. A patient who survives a heart attack will be left with dead muscle tissue that's replaced by scar tissue, Srivastava said. About 5 million heart attack survivors reside in the United States, he noted.

"Right now we don't have any good way to create new muscle for those individuals," he said. The only way to replace the damaged muscle is a heart transplant, he said, and only a couple thousand of those are performed each year in the United States.

The researchers want to prevent cells known as "fibroblasts" from creating scar tissue after a heart attack. Fibroblasts make up about half of the cells in the heart, and the idea is to turn them into muscle cells that "beat" -- heart-style -- by manipulating them with a "cocktail" of five genes, Srivastava said.

Srivastava and colleagues have managed to successfully test their approach in a laboratory dish and in mice that suffered simulated heart attacks. The new study, published Aug. 22 in Stem Cell Reports, aimed to see if the strategy would work in human cells in the laboratory. The researchers report that it did.

There are plenty of caveats. The study authors are concerned about whether the transformed cells could spawn problems in the heart's electrical system, Srivastava said. That could lead to potentially fatal irregular heartbeats.

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