A scientific team at King’s College London has published a study demonstrating that stem cells found in the heart are responsible for repairing and regenerating muscle tissue damaged by a heart attack which leads to heart failure.

The research, published today in Cell, shows that if the stem cells are eliminated, the heart is unable to repair after damage. If the cardiac stem cells are replaced the heart repairs itself, leading to complete cellular, anatomical, and functional heart recovery, with the heart returning to normal and pumping at a regular rate.

Also, if the cardiac stem cells are removed and re-injected, they repair the damaged heart—a discovery, say the scientists, that could lead to less-invasive treatments and even early prevention of heart failure in the future.

The work, funded by the European Commission Seventh Framework Program (FP7), set out to establish the role of cardiac stem cells by first removing the cells from the hearts of rodents with heart failure. This stopped regeneration and recovery of the heart, demonstrating the intrinsic regenerative capacity of these cells for repairing the heart in response to heart failure.

Georgina Ellison, Ph.D., the first author of the paper and Professor Bernardo Nadal-Ginard, the study’s corresponding author, both from the Center of Human and Aerospace Physiological Sciences and the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King’s, said: “In a healthy heart the quantity of cardiac stem cells is sufficient to repair muscle tissue in the heart. However, in damaged hearts many of these cells cannot multiply or produce new muscle tissue. In these cases it could be possible to replace the damaged cardiac stem cells or add new ones by growing them in the laboratory and administering them intravenously.”

“Understanding the role and potential of cardiac stem cells could pave the way for a variety of new ways to prevent and treat heart failure,” added Dr. Ellison. “These new approaches involve maintaining or increasing the activity of cardiac stem cells so that muscle tissue in the heart can be renewed with new heart cells, replacing old cells or those damaged by wear and tear.”

“Although an early study, our findings are very promising,” said Professor Nadal-Ginard. “Next steps include clinical trials, due to start early 2014, aimed at assessing the effectiveness of cardiac stem cells for preventing and treating heart failure in humans.” 

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