Stem cells have recently appeared in the press for being able to treat cancer, and as a recent study by UK scientists reveals, they might also be able to help repair hearts ravaged by cardiac disease.
When a heart is damaged, it cannot often repair the cells or make news ones. However, the new study shows that re-injected stem cells naturally home in on damaged regions of the heart to repair them.
The discovery could lead to less invasive treatments for heart failure, or early prevention of the condition that affects more than 750,000 Britons.
Heart failure occurs when the heart is too weak to pump blood around the body efficiently, leading to breathlessness, fatigue, and disability.
A leading cause of the condition is heart attacks, but it can also be triggered by genetic defects.
The new research set out to investigate the role of cardiac stem cells by removing them from rodents with heart failure.
Without the stem cells, the animals' hearts were unable to regenerate and recover.
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When the cells were re-injected, they migrated naturally to where they were needed and began to carry out repairs.
Lead scientist Dr Georgina Ellison, from King's College London, said: "In a healthy heart, the quantity of cardiac stem cells is sufficient to repair muscle tissue in the heart.
"However, in damaged hearts, many of these cells cannot multiply or produce new muscle tissue.
"In these cases it could be possible to replace the damaged cardiac stem cells or add new ones by growing them in the laboratory and administering them intravenously."
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The research is published in the latest edition of the journal Cell.
Dr Ellison said a better understanding of the way cardiac stem cells worked could lead to safer treatments.
"The cardiac stem cells naturally home to the heart because the heart is their home - they know to go there," she explained.
"Current practices involve major operations such as injection through the heart's muscle wall or coronary vessels.
"The homing mechanism shown by our research could lead to a less invasive treatment whereby cardiac stem cells are injected through a vein in the skin."
Co-author Professor Bernado Nadal-Ginard, from the Centre of Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King's College, said: "'Although an early study, our findings are very promising.
"Next steps include clinical trials, due to start early 2014, aimed at assessing the effectiveness of cardiac stem cells for preventing and treating heart failure in humans."
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