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ADVANCE Discourse: Lab

Rebuilding a Heartbeat

Published August 14, 2013 3:17 PM by Michael Jones

According to a press release, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) recently had some success in regenerative medicine when a “mouse heart was able to contract and beat again after its own cells were stripped a replaced with human heart precursor cells.” I’ve discussed the potential of induce pluripotent stem (IPS) cells and regenerative medicine before, which rely on a “three-dimensional scaffold” to generate customized cells from IPS cells. In this case, the “decellularized” or “stripped” heart provided the necessary platform to rebuild functional tissue.

“Scientists have been looking to regenerative medicine and tissue engineering approaches to find new solutions for this problem,” said Lei Yang, PhD, an assistant professor of developmental biology at the University of Pittsburgh’s school of medicine, said in the UPMC press release. “The ability to replace a piece of tissue damaged by a heart attack, or perhaps an entire organ, could be very helpful for these patients.”

The resulting multipotential cardiovascular progenitor (MCP) cells that allowed the tiny heart to start beating again were produced by “reverse engineering fibroblast cells from a small skin biopsy to make induced pluripotent stem cells and then treating the IPC cells with special growth factors to further induce differentiation.” The UPMC researchers managed to rebuild human cells that contracted 40 to 50 times a minute. Despite the successful result, the release also noted that more research would be needed before they could produce cells to cause the heart to beat efficiently.

“This process makes MCPs, which are precursor cells that can further differentiate into three kinds of cells the heart uses, including cardiomyocytes, endothelial cells and smooth muscle cells,” Yang explained in the release. “Nobody has tried using these MCPs for heart regeneration before. It turns out that the heart’s extracellular matrix -- the material that is the substrate of heart scaffold -- can send signals to guide the MCPs into becoming the specialized cells that are needed for proper heart function.”

Yang further continued, discussing the potential benefits of IPSC-generated tissue to use as “patches to replace a region damaged by a heart attack,” while the release noted applications in research for the effects of certain drugs or in gaining a better understanding of fetal heart development. While the prospect of eventually growing whole organs is an exciting idea in regards to transplants, the idea of “patching” damaged tissue stands to be a giant leap for more effective treatments in the short term. 

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