Medical researchers at the University of Washington say they believe they’ve found a way to regrow damaged heart muscle with stem cells.

They say people experiencing heart disease could someday use stem cells to regenerate damaged heart tissue and return their hearts back to their original working condition.

Pointing at a group of stem cells pulsating under a microscope, Dr. Mike LaFlamme said, “They’re beating in that heart at the same rhythm, under the control of the recipient heart.”

“It means we can create new muscle, replacement muscle in the hearts, and that that new muscle will hook up with the remaining heart and contract and provide new force-generating units.”

He said that after a heart attack, the muscle that is lost is replaced by scar tissue.

“It doesn`t generate any force and so it`s that loss of muscle over time that causes a high percentage of people who've had a heart attack to go into heart failure,” said LaFlamme.

He and his colleague, Dr. Chuck Murry at the University of Washington, said these stem cells can regrow new heart muscle.

“Our goal is to not have a patient get so sick that they would actually need an accessory mechanical pump to work for them, that they would use their own heart,” Murry said. “And we would help it along the way by growing new muscle back in it.”

LaFlamme and Murry said they expect to start patient trials in Seattle within the next three years.

That gives hope to Steve Wilson, a former basketball referee and school administrator in the old Pac-10, who was diagnosed with heart failure.

He’s had four-way bypasses and several stints. The hope that he might be able to get his heart repaired for good someday has “changed my outlook … to know there’s something else down the line.”