Regenerative medicine may allow us to regrow heart muscle

by Jennifer Ellis, Director of Marketing, LabRoots

Regenerative medicine may have just received a boost, by allowing scientists to transform skin cells into beating heart cells. This new method, devised by researchers at the Gladstone Institute, is more efficient, and, more importantly, allows for complete reprogramming of skin cells into heart cells for the regeneration of lost muscle in heart attack victims.

Heart disease is a leading cause of death around the world, contributing to an estimated 17 million deaths every year. Advances in medicine and treatments have improved survival rates of heart attack victims in recent years. However, with the growing rate of heart attack survivors comes an increase in the number of people living with heart failure. Heart failure is a chronic condition in which the heart cannot beat to full capacity, most likely due to muscle loss during a heart attack. The scientific and medical communities have now turned to cellular reprogramming as a potential treatment for heart failure, to regenerate the damaged heart muscle itself.

Typically, reprogramming of skin cells into heart cells is a complicated process, requiring the insertion of several genetic factors. Genetic manipulation of this sort directly reprograms the cell and can be very time-intensive.  Additionally, there have been issues with scaling the gene-based method into effective and applicable treatments, such as high cost and time, and having to individualize treatments instead of delivering bulk therapy. Now, a different approach has been discovered by Gladstone Investigator Sheng Ding, PhD, and team.

Instead of inserting various genetic factors, the team searched for small molecules in the skin cells of adult mice that when mixed in certain combinations could make the skin cells behave more like contracting heart cells. The researchers found a small molecule “cocktail”, called SPCF, made up of four compounds that almost completely reprogrammed the cells, causing contracting and twitching behaviours. By adding one genetic factor, Oct4, to the cocktail, the team was able to create a completely reprogrammed beating heart cell, similar in behaviour to the electrical signalling patterns normally seen in ventricular heart cells. These results offer a more efficient and less complicated approach for reprogramming, and could lead to a pharmaceutical-based process to regrow heart muscle.

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