Old and sick but still young at heart? Cardiac stem cells obtained from people with heart problems still found to be young and healthy to be useful

Cardiac stem cells — even in elderly and sick patients — could generate new heart muscle and vessel tissue and be used to treat heart failure, according to research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2010.

Scientists surgically removed tissue from the muscular wall of the heart’s chambers in 21 patients. They then isolated and multiplied the cardiac stem cells (CSCs) found there. Most of the patients had ischemic cardiomyopathy (enlarged and weakened muscle due to coronary artery disease). Eleven also had diabetes. The average age of patients was about 65.

"Regardless of the gender or age of the patient, or of diabetes, we were able to isolate in all of them a pool of functional cardiac stem cells that we can potentially use to rescue the decompensated human heart," said Domenico D’Amario, M.D., Ph.D., author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Regenerative Medicine at Harvard, Boston, Mass.

He found that female pateints in the study had 20 percent more CSCs than male patients. D’Amario said, this finding may be because in general woment tend to have longer life span and their hearts have higher resilience.

They also found that cells had long telomeres, or "caps," on their chromosomal ends indicating that expanded CSCs retained a significant growth reserve, although less so in older or diabetic patients. Longer telomeres directly implies longer life span for the cells.

On the same study, scientists also studied activation of a cell surface marker, insulin growth factor receptor 1 (IGF-1R), which recognizes stem cells that are most likely to thrive and have the potential to produce new cardiac tissue.

"Now you have a resident cardiac stem cell that is already programmed to form cardiac muscle, so this cell is already superior to any other cell you can take from other tissues," said Piero Anversa, M.D., senior author of the study and director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine.

CSCs are distributed throughout the cardiac muscle, but the atrial and apical regions of the heart contain niches, where the cells are protected from the physical stress of the heartbeat.

The heart’s CSC reserve is present regardless of patient differences in ethnicity, background, diet and other factors. Research in more patients is needed to bolster the strength of the data, Anversa said.

Does this mean pretty soon, diseased heart can get replacement from the patients heart itself? The possibilities are exciting.

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