An Australian cardiologist and his US colleagues have found a way to regrow muscle killed by a heart attack.
This means a possible cure for people in the advanced stages of heart failure, who at present need a transplant to avoid a slow death.
In what the team describes as a world first, it found a way to use embryonic stem cells to repair the heart of a large mammal.
Unlike in other stem cell studies, the transferred tissue beats in sync with the host heart, and receives its blood and nutrients in the same way as the original tissue.
“This enables the long-term survival of the tissue,” says University of Sydney cardiology lecturer and researcher Dr James Chong, who is lead author of a research report in the journal Nature.
So far, the process has been achieved in monkeys, but the team is optimistic it will be years rather than decades before they can save human lives.
The research is important because, like the brain, the heart is not able to adequately repair itself, Dr Chong says. It’s one of the least regenerative organs in the body.
Heart failure kills more than 20,000 Australians a year, and one of the saddest parts of Dr Chong’s work is treating a patient in the advanced stages of the illness.
“It’s a dreadful condition. Patients can’t breathe or get out of bed.
“I don’t think any doctor who has a patient at death’s doorstep is not emotionally affected.
“But this could save lives. At present, the only options for these patients is a transplant or medication that slows the progressive decline.”
The treatment could potentially become routine, even for people with minor heart damage, says Dr Chong, who practises at Westmead Hospital.
The research has taken many years, he says.
“It’s very significant when you move from small animals such as rodents to larger animals such as monkeys.”
But he does not take animal experiments lightly.
“We adhere to strict ethical guidelines. No doctor wants to harm any living animal. But we need to know the treatment is going to be safe for humans. That’s the reality.”