Researchers at the Ott Lab at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital have successfully grown human heart tissue from stem cells created from adult skin cells. The breakthrough represents a major step forward in regenerative therapy, as the team’s technique could be used to ‘grow’ new heart tissue from a patient’s own cellular tissue, reducing the need for heart transplants as well as the risk for rejection of the implanted tissue. Although it’s not possible to grow an entire heart, this kind of advancement in medical technology could make a huge impact for those suffering from cardiac diseases which often result in death.
In order to put their theories to the test, the research team used 73 donor hearts from the New England Organ Bank, all of which had been determined unsuitable for transplantation. Researchers stripped the hearts down to their extracellular matrix, removing all the living cells. That process left them with a neutral scaffold on which the new cellular material could grow.
By genetically manipulating skin cells with messenger RNA (a recent technique in the field), researchers found they could efficiently convert those cells into stem cells. Those cells were then encouraged to grow into cardiac muscle cells which, after being attached to the stripped-down hearts’ scaffold, grew into functional, contracting heart tissue. This essentially means that a heart patient’s own skin could be used to regenerate their heart and potentially improve or even cure many medical problems, like heart disease.
Some day, medical researchers may develop techniques for growing a whole functional heart, but this ‘patch’ is a significant breakthrough and researchers are excited by the prospects. “Regenerating a whole heart is most certainly a long-term goal that is several years away, so we are currently working on engineering a functional myocardial patch that could replace cardiac tissue damaged due a heart attack or heart failure,” lead author Jacques Guyette said in a statement.