Using Skin Cells to Repair Hearts

Skin cells can be transformed into heart muscle cells.

Heart failure patients could be treated with their own, human-induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) in the future. Scientists from Technion in Israel have succeeded in taking skin cells from heart failure patients and transforming them into heart muscle cells for the first time.

While skin cells have been taken from young, healthy patients, it was not previously known if cells could be taken from older patients who are suffering from a disease. This is also the first time that scientists have integrated heart cells created from hiPSCs with existing tissue.

“We have shown for the first time that it’s possible to establish hiPSCs from heart failure patients–who represent the target patient population for future cell therapy strategies using these cells–and coax them to differentiate into heart muscle cells that can integrate with host cardiac tissue,” says Professor Lior Gepstein, lead author of the study published today in the European Heart Journal.

Skin cells were taken from two heart failure patients and reprogrammed by delivering three genes and a valproic acid molecule to the cell nucleus using a virus, which was then removed. The cells were able to differentiate to form heart muscle cells and could be cultivated into heart muscle tissue.

The researchers combined the cultivated tissue with pre-existing cardiac tissue. The tissues began beating together within 24 to 48 hours and, when it was transplanted into healthy rats, began to establish connections with the host cells.

“What is new and exciting about our research is that we have shown that it’s possible to take skin cells from an elderly patient with advanced heart failure and end up with his own beating cells in a laboratory dish that are healthy and young—the equivalent to the stage of his heart cells when he was just born,” Gepstein says.

Gepstein and his colleagues warn that it could be five to 10 years before clinical trials start, as there are still a number of obstacles to be overcome before heart failure patients can be treated using this method.

By using the patients own cells, the researchers hope to avoid prevent the cells being rejected by the patient’s immune system. “We hope that hiPSCs derived cardiomyocytes will not be rejected following transplantation into the same patients from which they were derived,” Gepstein says.

“Whether this will be the case or not is the focus of active investigation.”