Scientists Turn Skin Tissue into Beating Heart Cells

Scientists from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa have transformed skin tissue into beating heart cells, forging a path for further research into more effective post-heart attack therapy options.

The breakthrough may eventually pose as a solution for patients with severe organ damage by eliminating the risk of rejection by the body’s own immune system. For now, the cells have not been returned to patients, though they are healthy and beat in tandem with those of other heart cells in lab rats.

“We have shown that it’s 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 the stage his heart cells were in when he was just born,” explained Lior Gepstein, a cardiologist working on the project.

The original theory was suggested back in 2007 by two separate teams of scientists; Shinya Yamanaka in Japan and James Thomson in the U.S. Both researchers discovered ‘pluripotency’ genes that could apparently bring older cells back to a much younger developmental stage.

In the Israeli study, the scientists took skin cells from two heart attack survivors over the age of 50. With the help of three pluripotency genes, they brought them back to an immature stage, and then grew them into brand new heart muscle tissue.

“What was interesting was the cells could integrate with the rat tissue and contract in synchrony,” Gepstein said once the cells were injected and accepted by the rats’ hearts. “If you put the cells in and they beat with a completely different timing, you wouldn’t see any improvement in heart function and may even cause a dangerous arrhythmia.”

A consultant cardiologist at Edinburgh University, Nicholas Mills, said: “More people are surviving following a heart attack than ever before and therefore the number of people living with a damaged heart and heart failure is increasing. Unfortunately, the body has only very limited capacity to repair the heart following a heart attack, There is therefore an urgent need to develop effective and safe treatments to regenerate the heart.”

He added, “this technology needs to be refined before it can be used for the treatment of patients with heart failure, but these findings are encouraging and take us a step closer to our goal of identifying an effective means of repairing the heart and limiting the consequences of heart failure.”