ValentinesScience: Stem cells could repair your broken heart. 

As I’m sure you are all aware, tomorrow is February 14th – which for some people is a fantastic day of the year where they celebrate their love with their other half and for others is just another day. So whether you’re loved up or a singleton on this particular day of the year – I have a a new blog post for you talking about some affairs of the heart!

As well as talking about life as a PhD student and what it’s like to work in a lab, I also want to bring to you some really cool science research as part of this blog. I have done a couple of these Science Specials before, but this is the first one about stem cells.

Stem cells + the heart = some Valentines Science ❤

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I’m sure I’ve mentioned hundreds of times before that stem cells have huge potential and promise for future medical applications in what is called regenerative medicine. They could have the power to build whole new organs from scratch that will solve our organ transplant shortage – but first we need to harness that power which several researchers around the world are doing with the aim of treating hundreds of different diseases.

But as it’s Valentine’s Eve, I thought I would share with you some recent advances in the research that might one day help us repair our broken hearts!

 


Now I’ll be honest with you. If you’ve recently experienced a bad break up with your girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife then I don’t think this is going to do much for you unfortunately 😔. But these stem cells will be able to help if someone suffers from heart failure.

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Number 1 – Heart beats again after the addition of stem cells.

Pluipotent stem cells have the potential to become any cell type that is present in your body right now – but creating a fully functioning heart from those cells isn’t as simple as it sounds. The human heart is a very complex structure and would need some sort of scaffolding to help any stem cells make that specific shape of heart cells, rather than just a sheet of them in a cell culture plate. So, one group of scientists from the University of Pittsburgh have tried to solve this problem using a rat heart that has been stripped of all its own cells and leaving us with a potential scaffolding for building a heart – much like you might see scaffolding around a building that is being built.

You might be asking – why does that rat’s heart need to be stripped of its cells? Well – I’m sure you heard stories of patients receiving an organ transplant and then the organ getting rejected? Well, that happens because the patients immune system thinks that organ is a foreign body and starts attacking it, much like your immune system does when you have a viral infection. Your body doesn’t recognise the virus, and so tries to attack it to get rid of it! It is the same thing with this rat heart. The ultimate goal is to be able to transplant this newly built heart – scaffold and all – into a patient that needs a heart transplant. If that heart has any rat cells on it then the patient’s immune system is going to  reject it!

So now we have our decellularised scaffold, how do we make a heart from that? Well we are not there yet, but this group of scientists work, which you can read about here if you’re interested, has shown that by adding stem cells to that scaffold, the stem cells have repopulated the scaffold and those cells have even started to perform spontaneous contractions like our heart is known for! While this is such an impressive feat and very promising for the future, a lot more research needs to be done to make those contractions strong enough to be able to pump blood all the way around your body. This link  shows you a video of that heart beating again!

Now you might also be wondering why I needed to mention the potential risk of immune rejection from any remaining rat heart cells, but why haven’t I mentioned the same risk for the stem cells that are added? Where have they come from? Well, an incredible stem cell advancement in 2006 saw the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells started out as a skin cell for example and then got reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells where they once again had the potential to become any cell type present in our body! This remarkable stem cell type is the reason why we don’t need to be worried about immune rejection using iPSCs because they would have come from the same patient that the heart would be transplanted into, so the patients body in theory should recognise the cells again when they are transplanted back in even if they are a different cell type now!

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Number 2 – Stem cells can repair scar tissue left by heart attacks.

There is currently no cure for heart failure, and many patients with stage 3 heart failure have a lower life expectancy than many cancer patients – many are not expected to live longer than 2 years! Heart failure is most commonly caused by a heart attack and the heart muscle suffers irreparable damage leaving lots of scar tissue. Their hearts can now no longer pump blood efficiently around the body because of this scar tissue and is linked to further heart attacks and even sudden death. As a result of this, patients are often left unable to perform simple, every-day activities such as walking up stairs and lying down to sleep because of shortness of breath and some cannot even manage to put their shoes on because of their swollen ankles from their poor circulation.

Now, I’ve painted a bit of a gloomy picture for these patients, but there may be hope on the horizon for them with the results of a recent stem cell trial! This trial involved 11 patients and saw the injection of stem cells into the scar tissue on their hearts during surgery. These operations were performed between November 2012 and September 2013 where each of these patients were not expected to live longer than 2 years. As of July 2016 – these patients had seen a 40% reduction in the amount of scar tissue present on their hearts, had suffered no further heart attacks and were all still alive and well and doing much more activity than they could before the trial!

A remarkable effect purely based on the addition of some stem cells to the affected area! Now the exact make up of these cells is still a secret as it is still in the trial phase, but  the injected stem cells appear to reduce inflammation and encourage regeneration of the scar tissue and also secrete factors that help in the prevention of further attacks too.

With larger trials expected to be carried out very soon, stem cells may yet be providing hope to repair own broken hearts yet again!

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There are so many different avenues of stem cell research being carried out across the globe with the sole aim of finding the best way to mend our broken hearts. In fact, research is trying to find the best way to treat almost every disease we can think of using stem cells. But at the moment, nothing is widely available as a treatment but I have so much hope for the near future and I am very excited by all this stem cell news recently!

Stem cells to the rescue once again!

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I aim to report various different advances in stem cell research and the medical field when it becomes available so to keep up to date with it, make sure you follow me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Or if there is something you want to write about on my blog then please get in contact – I would love to hear from you!

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