Written by Alex Crees
When a person suffers a heart attack, scar tissue forms over the damaged areas of the heart, reducing the organ’s function. However, in a recent study, scientists successfully turned this scar tissue into working heart muscle without the use of stem cells.
Duke University researchers used molecules called microRNAs to convert scar tissue (called fibroblasts) into heart muscle cells in a living mouse, improving the heart’s ability to pump blood.
According to the scientists, this process is much simpler than stem cell transplants and has none of the ethical concerns, making it a potential turning point in the science of tissue regeneration.
“Right now, there’s no good evidence stem cells can do the job,” senior author Dr. Victor Dzau, a James B. Duke professor of medicine and chancellor of health affairs at Duke University, told FoxNews.com.
Scientists believe embryonic stem cells are the best to use for tissue regeneration because they are pluripotent—meaning they can become any type of cell in the body. However, Dzau said there have not been enough experiments done to prove how functional the stem cells are in regenerating tissues and whether or not they may form deadly tumors.
Additionally, there are ethical concerns about using cells derived from a human embryo, he said.
Meanwhile, adult stem cells avoid the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells but have a limited capacity to form other types of cells. The results of using these adult stem cells for tissue regeneration are “not as satisfying as one would like,” Dzau said.
Rather than stem cells, the new method developed by Dzau’s team uses microRNA molecules—which typically control gene activity—and delivers them into the scar tissue that develops after a heart attack. The microRNAs are able to reprogram, or trick, the scar tissue into becoming heart muscle again instead.
Testing is still in its early stages, but so far, the method appears to be relatively easy, and the data looks very promising, according to the researchers.
“It’s a much simplified, feasible way of causing regeneration; very easy to use as therapy,” Dzau said.