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Can The Heart Be Repaired Naturally With Its Own Stem Cells?

Although controversial in many medical circles, some experts now believe the human heart may naturally manufacture stem cells it uses to begin the renewal and repair of cardiomyocytes, cells that pump blood through the heart. One Temple researcher, Dr. Steven Houser, believes those stem cells serve as a biological "loofah" that are self-renewing and can be differentiated into different types of heart tissue.

This theory, if proven right, could be a key to combating congestive heart failure, researchers said, because bypass procedures, stents and drugs sidestep the main issue: Improving overall heart health.

Many are skeptical for two reasons:

  • Stem cells can over-multiply and cause tumors, and the heart rarely gets them.
  • Observations that adult cardiac myocytes do not have the capacity to proliferate have led most investigators to accept that no new cardiac myocytes are manufactured in the normal heart.

Houser joined forces with Dr. Piero Anversa, professor of medicine and director of the Cardiovascular Institute at the New York Medical College at Valhalla, N.Y., who published a study that identified cardiac stem cells in animal models that repaired tissue damaged by a heart attack.

One element that convinced Houser: His own research into how the heart reacts under the stress of hypertensive diseases that can lead to congestive heart failure. Early in the disease, the heart muscle mass increases and the chambers stretch in a vain attempt to increase contracting power. While part of the enlargement is due to increased muscle mass, the question of how the chambers grow is less certain.

Those in conventional medicine believe cardiac cells simply grow larger to accommodate the increased need. Instead, both scientists developed a different theory, spurred by a belief in cardiac stem cells, in which cardiomyocytes increase in number in their response to the heart's traumatic condition.

This theory certainly may put a positive spin on stem cell research, especially in light of a recent study that found adult stem cells may have the same ability as embryonic stem cells to multiply.

Science Blog July 21, 2005

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