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Stem cells could be used to make biological pacemaker for heart patients
Injections of heart muscle created from patients’ own skin cells could save them from needing surgery to implant artificial pacemakers that regulate their heartbeat, following new research.
Richard Gray

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent

8:10AM GMT 11 Nov 2012

Scientists have grown fully functional heart muscles by reprogramming stem cells and skin cells from patients. They found that these reprogrammed cells can “reset” the rhythm of any unhealthy heart tissue that is placed around them.
The researchers believe that patients suffering from irregular or slow heart beats could be treated with an injection of new heart cells grown from stem cells to create a “biological pacemaker” that will regulate their heartbeat.
Currently patients who have suffered heart attacks that cause their heart to pump out of sync or who suffer from irregular heartbeats have to undergo surgery where a battery powered pacemaker is fitted to control the organ’s rhythm.
There are approximately 25,000 pacemakers fitted each year in the UK.
Dr Oren Caspi, from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology who has been carrying out the research, said the heart cells they had created appeared to behave like young, healthy heart tissue found in new born babies.
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He said: “We found that the electrical signal from the heart cells we created synchronised the beat of any surrounding heart tissue.
“We have seen this happen in dishes in the laboratory and in animal models. When we integrated the cells into the hearts of pigs, they were paced by the cells that were injected.
“It seems that the cells that beat fastest control the pace, so it could be used to replace artificial pacemakers for people with slow or irregular heartbeats.”
Dr Caspi and his colleague Professor Lior Gepstein earlier this year became the first scientists in the world to generate beating heart cells by reprogramming skin cells taken from patients.
They converted the adult skin into a type of cell known as induced pluripotent stem cells, which have the potential to develop into any tissue found in the body. By altering the conditions they were grown in, the cells then developed into fully functioning heart cells.
The researchers believe it will be possible to use skin cells from patients to create injectable biological pacemakers – reducing the risk of them being rejected by the patients body.
They are now working with clinical heart specialists in a bid to trail the treatment in human patients.
Dr Caspi said: “We are working with clinicians to take some of our data to the clinic, but it is still a very new technology so there is still a lot of research to be done before any treatments will emerge.”

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