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Skin cells switched to heart cells

10th August 2010

People whose hearts are at risk of failure may soon be able to benefit from a new technique, which can generate heart muscle cells.

stem cell research

Using the method in mice, researchers in the US were able to turn skin cells into heart muscle cells.

The cells did not need to be turned into stem cells, however.

The technique uses the patient's ordinary cells, then modifies them by turning on three important genes.

Every year, the number of available heart donors falls far short of the millions who develop heart failure.

While the researchers have not yet tested their method on human cells, the finding could pave the way for new treatment methods and eliminate the need for heart transplants.

If the method were to be used in a more general way, it could also dissolve the need for donors of other organs, too.

The process involved in turning on genes in various cells, known as transdifferentiation, has been used in other studies.

Since using stem cells has several drawbacks, including 'seed cancer', researchers are increasingly relying on transdifferentiation.

Deepak Srivastava, director of the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, said that he did not know whether or not the new developments would actually replace stem cell use eventually.

Normally, heart cells do not regenerate at all, and people live their entire lives with the same, unique set of heart cells.

Converted stem cells are not able to beat as strongly as mature heart cells.

Using a computer, researchers first searched for genes which had the highest rates of expression in the heart, narrowing it down to just three genes.

Then the researchers looked for a human cell that had something in common with heart muscle tissue.

They chose to use cardiac fibroblasts, which are a type of structural cell.

The team also searched for cells similar to cardiac fibroblasts, and came up with some types of skin cell.

Transdifferentiation worked well on cardiac fibroblasts, so the researchers implanted the cells into the hearts of mice.

The cells functioned normally, leading the researchers to wonder whether or not the three genes they used were also the ones that would turn human cells into fully functioning heart cells.

George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at the Children's Hospital Boston in Massachusetts, said that the scientists had made important progress in the field of transdifferentiation.

He said there were probably about 100 laboratories currently trying to make different types of cells using transdifferentiation.

Wernig said that the biological field of direct conversion was still in its early stages, and that it remained to be seen whether or not it would entirely replace stem cell use.

In a second, related study, researchers used newts instead of mice.

Helen Blau of Stanford's Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine said that newts regenerated tissues very effectively.

She said that mammals only really excelled at regenerating liver tissue.

Her research team was particularly interested in the biological process by which amphibians are able to regenerate entire legs.

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