Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, reported Tuesday that they had removed skin cells from two patents with heart failure, returned those cells to an embryonic state, and then transformed them into beating heart cells that could communicate with the patients’ existing heart tissue.
“We have shown that it is possible to take skin cells from an elderly patient with advanced heart failure and end up with his own beating cells in a laboratory dish that are healthy and young — the equivalent to this stage of his heart cells when he was just born,” study leader Dr. Lior Gepstein said in a statement.
The discovery marks a small step toward a long-sought goal: using stem cells to regrow the cardiac tissue that is damaged in heart attacks. (The Times reported on the quest in February, 2011.) But it doesn’t mean that patients with heart failure are likely to get shiny new hearts through stem cell treatments anytime soon.
Several hurdles stand in the way of using induced pluripotent stem cells, as the skin-derived cells are called, to reverse heart attack damage. The Israeli researchers acknowledged several. Such cells are known to spin out of control and cause cancer. Stem cell-derived cardiac cells have also had problems coordinating with normal heart rhythms. The team will need to be able to generate larger numbers of the cells before it can test the treatment, and will need to perfect transplant methods.
And if all those hurdles are crossed, scientists still won’t know if the technology will work in people. “What we produce in an animal model or in a petri dish is hardly what happens in a human. This is a first step. It will take five, 10, 15, maybe 20 years to reach fruition at the soonest,” said Dr. Shephal Doshi, director of electrophysiology and pacing at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica.
Most patients will have to wait to take advantage of other types of stem cell cures for heart failure as well — including treatments that use cells derived from bone marrow to stimulate heart regeneration, treatments that use cardiac stem cells removed from the heart to build heart tissue and insert it back into the diseased organ and treatments that attempt to stimulate cardiac stem cells in place in the heart into action to rebuild tissues. These technologies are in varying stages of testing and development.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information about heart failure in the U.S.