Stem Cells: A Proof of Concept

stem_cellsHeart disease has long been an issue that has plagued humans. Heart attacks strike millions of Americans every year that result in permanent damage to the body’s most important muscle. While treatments have been established to correct some of the damage, or bypass it, the options for patients with serious heart damage are left without many options other than a transplant, if they survive long enough to receive one.

Stem cells have long been a controversial topic in the social spotlight in the United States and around the world. Stem cells are unique class of cells that have not decided what to become yet. Depending on the kind of stem cell, they have the potential to become any cell in the body, if given the correct developmental signals.

Scientists have been able to coax stem cells to decide to become (or differentiate into) specific cell types such as skin cells. Researchers from the University of Washington have taken this process one step further and have been able to regenerate healthy heart tissues in a primate model.

Damage to the heart from a myocardial infarction (heart attack) stems from the blockage of the coronary arteries. These blood vessels supply the heart itself with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to survive. When a clot or blockage become lodged in these vessels, the heart is deprived of these essential nutrients and begins to die. With rapid emergency intervention, the blockage can be removed and damage can be minimized. However, for so many, care can be delayed and intense damage can result.

The scientists intentionally caused heart attacks in the primates by blocking the coronary artery for 90 minutes, resulting in profound but not lethal damage to the animals’ hearts. Following stabilizing the research subjects, approximately a billion human stem cells were injected into their hearts. At the end of the study the group was thrilled to see that as much as 40% of the damage caused to the primates’ hearts had been corrected by the trial therapy.

Stem cells have demonstrated explicitly their ability to have a profound effect on human disease and injury. The current regulations in this nation have restricted the ability for scientists to perform this essential research, and has sent many to other countries where regulations are not as strict. It is important to reopen this dialogue in an American setting to further our knowledge of these life-saving stem cells.


James J. H. Chong, Xiulan Yang, Creighton W. Don, Elina Minami, Yen-Wen Liu, Jill J. Weyers, William M. Mahoney, Benjamin Van Biber, Nathan J. Palpant, Jay A. Gantz, James A. Fugate, Veronica Muskheli, G. Michael Gough, Keith W. Vogel, Cliff A. Astley, Charlotte E. Hotchkiss, Audrey Baldessari, Lil Pabon, Hans Reinecke, Edward A. Gill, Veronica Nelson, Hans-Peter Kiem, Michael A. Laflamme, Charles E. Murry. Human embryonic-stem-cell-derived cardiomyocytes regenerate non-human primate hearts. Nature, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nature13233

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