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Renewed hopes of regenerating damaged hearts with stem cells after University of Cambridge research

A “giant step” forward has been taken in work to help repair damaged hearts using human stem cells.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge, collaborating with researchers at the University of Washington, found a combination of heart muscle cells and supportive cells from the outer layer of the heart wall was more successful at aiding regeneration in laboratory models of heart disease.

An illustration of the heart (14810388)
An illustration of the heart (14810388)

For years, researchers have hoped to use stem cells - the body’s master cells, which can be programmed into any type of human cell - to regenerate damaged hearts.

But the efforts have been largely unsuccessful to date, typically because the vast majority of transplanted cells due within a few days.

Dr Sanjay Sinha and his team at the University of Cambridge strengthened the transplanted heart cells using supportive epicardial cells developed from human stem cells.

They used an organoid - 3D human heart tissue grown in the lab, also from human stem cells - to test the combination, and found the supportive cells helped the heart muscle cells to grow and mature, and improved their ability to contract and relax.

The combination also proved successful in tests with rats with damaged hearts, enabling transplanted cells to survive and restore lost heart muscle and blood vessel cells.

Dr Sinha, a British Heart Foundation-funded researcher and leader of the study, said: “There are hundreds of thousands of people in the UK living with heart failure – many are in a race against time for a life-saving heart transplant. But with only around 200 heart transplants performed each year in the UK, it’s absolutely essential that we start finding alternative treatments.”

The researchers now want to understand better how the supportive epicardial cells help to drive heart regeneration, which will take them closer to testing heart regenerative therapies in clinical trials.

Dr Johannes Bargehr, first author of the study at the University of Cambridge said: “Our research shows the huge potential of stem cells for one day becoming the first therapy for heart failure. Although we still have some way to go, we believe we’re one giant step closer, and that’s incredibly exciting.”

Debilitating heart failure affects hundreds of thousands of people in the UK, often because they have had a heart attack that has deprived the organ of oxygen.

This leads to the permanent loss of heart muscle and subsequent scarring that reduces the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body.

As the body does not regenerate this heart muscle, the only cure is a transplant.

The hope is that using stem cells from a patient’s own body could be used as a regenerative therapy.

The latest study was funded by the British Heart Foundation, Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research.

Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Despite advances in medical treatments, survival rates for heart failure remain poor and life expectancy is worse than for many cancers. Breakthroughs are desperately needed to ease the devastation caused by this dreadful condition.

“When it comes to mending broken hearts, stem cells haven’t yet really lived up to their early promise. We hope that this latest research represents the turning of the tide in the use of these remarkable cells.”

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