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heart cells
iPS-derived cardiomyocytes

Fifty-three years ago, the first human heart transplant took place at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. The daring surgery was performed by Dr. Christiaan Barnard. The world’s media covered the progress of the patient, Mr. Louis Washansky, on an hourly basis. Mr. Washansky lived with his new heart for 18 days. Barnard’s second transplant patient led an active life for more than 18 months. His fifth and sixth patients lived for almost 13 and 24 years, respectively.

Today, approximately 3,500 heart transplants are performed every year. Recent figures show 75% of heart transplant patients live at least five years after surgery. Nearly 85% return to work or other activities they previously enjoyed. Many patients enjoy swimming, cycling, running, or other sports.

The last paragraph is the good news. The bad news is more than 115,000 people in the United States are on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant (not just hearts). Sadly, 8,000 people per year die while waiting. Fortunately, there is an emerging alternative called regenerative medicine. I have written ten stories about regenerative medicine here in my blog. Today’s story is about a new breakthrough: lab-grown heart cells have been implanted in a human for the first time.

New Atlas has published more than 50,000 articles covering advances in various fields of technology. In January the site published “Lab-grown heart cells implanted into human patient for the first time“. The article describes a research plan for patients with ischemic cardiomyopathy (IC). IC is most commonly caused by coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. IC leads to the heart’s decreased ability to pump blood properly.

Professor Yoshiki Sawa, a cardiac surgeon at Osaka University in Japan, believes regenerative medicine will be a cure for IC. The potential cure starts with induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs), a Nobel Prize-winning technology developed at Kyoto University in 2006. The IPSCs are created by harvesting cells from the patient’s own tissue and then inducing the stem cells to transform themselves into heart cells called cardiomyocytes.

The heart has a few billion cardiomyocytes and, in a patient with IC, some of those cells are weakened. Dr. Sawa developed a technique to turn IPSCs into sheets of 100 million heart muscle cells, which can be grafted onto the heart to promote regeneration of damaged muscles. The sheets are biodegradable and, once implanted on the surface of the heart, release growth factors which encourage the new cells to grow and boost cardiac function. The sheets on which the cells were deposited will dissolve.

The technique was first tested on pigs and shown to improve heart function. Based on that result and supporting research, Japan’s health ministry approved a research plan involving human subjects. The first patient received the graft in January and is recovering in the hospital. Over the next three years, the clinical trial will add nine more patients. If the trial proves successful, many lives will be saved.

If you are interested in regenerative medicine, you may want to take a look at “3D Printing of Body Parts“.