Stem cell breakthrough may bring self-mending heart, scientists say
(CBS) A self-mending heart sounds like science fiction, but eye-popping new research suggests that a simple protein pill could prime hearts to repair damage that results from a heart attack.
"We have always believed that the heart has no capacity to heal itself, but this research suggests that this is not the case," Dr. Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said in a written statement published on theheart.org. "We think we have discovered a natural process that brings about repair of the heart."
The process involves reactivating dormant stem cells within the heart's outer layer, a.k.a. the epicardium. In a mouse study conducted at University College London, scientists managed to do just that by administering a protein known as thymosin Beta 4. The heart function of mice treated with the protein improved by up to 25 percent, The Telegraph reported.
The finding - published online June 8 in the journal "Nature" - is preliminary. But scientists say the same approach could be used to treat humans within a decade.
"I could envisage a patient known to be at risk of a heart attack - either because of family history or warning signs spotted by their GP - taking an oral tablet, along the lines of a statin, which would prime their heart so that if they had a heart attack, the damage could be repaired," study leader Dr. Paul Riley, professor of molecular cardiology at the university, told the paper.
Riley is now testing thymosin Beta 4 in human cells to see if the finding can be replicated.
Not all stem cell experts share Riley's enthusiasm. Dr. Nadia Rosenthal, senior scientist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Monterotondo, Italy, told The Australian that these are the early days of such treatments, adding that a flurry of similar findings had failed to pan out.
If the research does pan out, the pill would probably have to be given before a heart attack occurred. The ideal candidate, Weissberg said, would be someone who has experienced unstable angina. Angina is a form of chest pain that results when the heart doesn't get enough oxygen.
Such individuals are "on the edge of the precipice," he added. "There are millions of patients in this condition, and we treat them with drugs, but still many go over the precipice" - suffering a heart attack and possibly going on to develop heart failure.
If Weissberg and Riley are right, help may now be on the way for the 18 million Americans estimated by the American Heart Association to have experienced angina or a heart attack.
If they can hold on long enough.
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