An injection of newly discovered stem cells could encourage the heart to regenerate and reverse damage, scientists believe.
Many heart attack survivors are left suffering breathlessness and tiredness because their muscles are so badly damaged that the heart can no longer pump blood effectively.
Scientists have hoped that an injection of heart stem cells could encourage the organ to repair itself but have struggled to find cells which had a significant effect.
Now, researchers at the British Heart Foundation and Imperial College have discovered that a particular type of stem cell in the heart is crucial to the regeneration process. After the new stem cells were injected into damaged hearts they were able to pump double the amount of blood as before.
Although so far the cells have only been found in mice, the team are hopeful that a similar regenerating cell should exist in humans.
Professor Michael Schneider, of Imperial College, who directed the research said: “We have found stem cells in the heart that have a specific protein on their surface have the greatest potential to repair damaged hearts.
“When we injected stem cells with this protein into damaged hearts, we saw a significant level of heart repair.
“Future treatments could be injections of stem cells, as in our current experiments, or use of the healing proteins that these cells make.”
This study discovered that stem cells with heart repairing properties carry an identifying protein on their surface, called PDGFRα.
The scientists were able to use this protein to find, purify and multiply enough of these stem cells so that they could be injected into damaged hearts.
Stem cells could be injected directly into the heart to repair it
Mice treated with these stem cells were able to recover and repair a significant proportion of their damaged heart muscle after 12 weeks, preventing heart failure, when compared to mice who had not received the treatment.
The researchers now hope to find a similar cell in human hearts, using PDGFRα and other proteins to identify and purify the best stem cells to repair the damage caused by heart attacks.
Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation which part-funded the study said: “This research is an early but important step towards understanding how we might be able to encourage stem cells in failing hearts to repair the damage caused by a heart attack.
“A crucial next step for this research will be to establish if the human heart has similar heart-repairing stem cells to those pinpointed by this method in mice.”