Can Breakthrough Skin-Cell Technique Help Heal Your Heart?

By Amir Khan on May 23, 2012 12:11 PM EDT

heart
Study finds skin cells technique may help heal hears (Photo: quebecoislibre.org)

The newest technique to repair a damaged heart may rely on skin cells, according to a new study, published in the European Heart Journal on Wednesday. By taking skin cells and turning them into stem cells, a technique that is already well known, researchers were able to generate beating heart cells -- a medical first.

"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 of his heart cells when he was just born," Lior Gepstein, study author and professor of medicine at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Israel, said in a statement.

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Researchers took skin cells from patients with heart damage and turned them into stem cells capable of taking on the form of surrounding cells. They turned the cells into heart muscle tissue and implanted them in rats. Within 24-48 hours, the cells were all beating together. And since the cells originally came from the patient, there is no chance of rejection.

"The ability to source a patient's own skin cells and transform them into heart muscle is truly revolutionary," Dr. Gregory Fontana, chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, who was not involved in the study, told HealthDay.

The findings open the possibility of using stem cells to treat patients with heart disease while sidestepping many of the issues that typically come with it, Dr. Tom Povsic, an interventional cardiologist at Duke University Medical Center, who was not involved in the study, told ABC News.

"This approach has a number of attractive features," he said. ""We can get the cells that you start with from the patient himself or herself. It avoids the ethical dilemma associated with embryonic stem cells and it removes the possibility of rejection of foreign stem cells by the immune system."

Researchers stressed that the technique is still far away from having clinical applications, but said in the future, it's possible this will be a viable form of treatment.

"There is still a lot of work that must be done before these regeneration procedures can be used in patients with heart failure," Dr. Lawrence Phillips, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, who was not involved in the study, told HealthDay. " However, the successes seen in this study -- as well as others recently published -- show that we are clearly making progress."

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