Can Stem Cells Repair a Damaged Heart?

Heart attacks and congestive heart failure remain among the Nation’s most prominent health challenges despite many breakthroughs in cardiovascular medicine. In fact, despite successful approaches to prevent or limit cardiovascular disease, the restoration of function to the damaged heart remains a formidable challenge. Recent research is providing early evidence that adult and embryonic stem cells may be able to replace damaged heart muscle cells and establish new blood vessels to supply them. Discussed here are some of the recent discoveries that feature stem cell replacement and muscle regeneration strategies for repairing the damaged heart.

Introduction

For those suffering from common, but deadly, heart diseases, stem cell biology represents a new medical frontier. Researchers are working toward using stem cells to replace damaged heart cells and literally restore cardiac function.

Today in the United States, congestive heart failure—the ineffective pumping of the heart caused by the loss or dysfunction of heart muscle cells—afflicts 4.8 million people, with 400,000 new cases each year. One of the major contributors to the development of this condition is a heart attack, known medically as a myocardial infarction, which occurs in nearly 1.1 million Americans each year. It is easy to recognize that impairments of the heart and circulatory system represent a major cause of death and disability in the United States [5].

What leads to these devastating effects? The destruction of heart muscle cells, known as cardiomyocytes, can be the result of hypertension, chronic insufficiency in the blood supply to the heart muscle caused by coronary artery disease, or a heart attack, the sudden closing of a blood vessel supplying oxygen to the heart. Despite advances in surgical procedures, mechanical assistance devices, drug therapy, and organ transplantation, more than half of patients with congestive heart failure die within five years of initial diagnosis. Research has shown that therapies such as clot-busting medications can reestablish blood flow to the damaged regions of the heart and limit the death of cardiomyocytes. Researchers are now exploring ways to save additional lives by using replacement cells for dead or impaired cells so that the weakened heart muscle can regain its pumping power.

How might stem cells play a part in repairing the heart? To answer this question, researchers are building their knowledge base about how stem cells are directed to become specialized cells. One important type of cell that can be developed is the cardiomyocyte, the heart muscle cell that contracts to eject the blood out of the heart’s main pumping chamber (the ventricle). Two other cell types are important to a properly functioning heart are the vascular endothelial cell, which forms the inner lining of new blood vessels, and the smooth muscle cell, which forms the wall of blood vessels. The heart has a large demand for blood flow, and these specialized cells are important for developing a new network of arteries to bring nutrients and oxygen to the cardiomyocytes after a heart has been damaged. The potential capability of both embryonic and adult stem cells to develop into these cells types in the damaged heart is now being explored as part of a strategy to restore heart function to people who have had heart attacks or have congestive heart failure. It is important that work with stem cells is not confused with recent reports that human cardiac myocytes may undergo cell division after myocardial infarction [1]. This work suggests that injured heart cells can shift from a quiescent state into active cell division. This is not different from the ability of a host of other cells in the body that begin to divide after injury. There is still no evidence that there are true stem cells in the heart which can proliferate and differentiate.

Researchers now know that under highly specific growth conditions in laboratory culture dishes, stem cells can be coaxed into developing as new cardiomyocytes and vascular endothelial cells. Scientists are interested in exploiting this ability to provide replacement tissue for the damaged heart. This approach has immense advantages over heart transplant, particularly in light of the paucity of donor hearts available to meet current transplantation needs.

What is the evidence that such an approach to restoring cardiac function might work? In the research laboratory, investigators often use a mouse or rat model of a heart attack to study new therapies (see Figure 9.1. Rodent Model of Myocardial Infarction). To create a heart attack in a mouse or rat, a ligature is placed around a major blood vessel serving the heart muscle, thereby depriving the cardiomyocytes of their oxygen and nutrient supplies. During the past year, researchers using such models have made several key discoveries that kindled interest in the application of adult stem cells to heart muscle repair in animal models of heart disease.

Rodent Model of Myocardial Infarction

Figure 9.1. Rodent Model of Myocardial Infarction.

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