New stem cell treatments may soon be able to repair damage from heart attacks using cells from the skin of a genetically matched donor. Heart cells would be created in a lab from the donor’s skin cells, and then used to repair damaged tissue.

However, more research is reported to be necessary before human trials can be performed.

So far, tests on monkeys have shown that the new heart cells were quickly integrated into the damaged parts of the heart, which helped the damaged organs to pump more efficiently. Unfortunately, the monkeys involved in the trial developed abnormal heart rhythms, which led scientists to conclude that further research was necessary for the technique to be deemed safe for human trials.

The new method takes a different approach to an idea scientists were already working on. Instead of taking skin cells from the heart attack patient to convert into heart cells, the treatment takes skin cells from a genetically matched donor. This method is less costly and time consuming than taking cells from the patient and adapting them, but recipients would need drugs to prevent the immune system from rejecting the donor cells.

In the new research, Yuji Shiba, and his team at Shinshu University in Matsumoto, Japan, induced heart attacks in five macaques, and injected heart cells created from skin cells from donor monkeys. They found that the cells replaced roughly 16 percent of damaged heart tissue, and helped the hearts to pump more effectively over a 12-week period. Their research was recently published in the journal Nature.

Shiba was optimistic that the issue with post-transplant arrhythmia could be solved.

The Director of the British Heart Foundation cardiovascular regenerative medicine center at Imperial College London, Sian Harding praised the new research by Shiba’s team:

“They strengthen the case that a bank of pre-prepared matched [cells] could be used to treat patients, without relying on the long process of reprogramming and differentiating the patient’s own cells.”

About 610,000 people die of heart disease annually in the US. In 2008, heart attacks were responsible for roughly one quarter of all deaths in the US, making it the leading cause of death for both men and women. It is a more common cause of death than cancer.  Although 70 percent of patients survive the heart attack, the resulting tissue damage remains problematic.

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