Mending broken hearts

Introduction People Projects Statistics

Research in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics suggests that it may be possible to treat heart muscle damaged in heart attacks with injections of stem cells, thereby repopulating the damaged area with new heart muscle cells.

Mending03Professor Kieran Clarke’s Cardiac Metabolism Research Group is dedicated to studying the changes that take place in heart muscle and other organs during heart failure. One of her projects seeks to discover whether it is possible to generate new heart muscle and blood vessels from adult human stem cells, and restore function after a heart attack.

Mending02Stem cells have the potential to develop into a variety of different specialised forms.  One source of stem cells is the early embryo, but in recent years researchers have discovered that there are populations of stem cells even in the adult human. The heart has its own population of stem cells, which are used for the everyday replacement of dead cells. However, when a person has a heart attack, there are not enough stem cells to completely repair the injured tissue, because so many cells have been killed at one time. This leaves a scar and can lead to heart failure.

Mending01Professor Clarke’s group is isolating stem cells from the heart, increasing their numbers by growing them in culture and injecting them back into the heart after an attack. ‘We deliver stem cells to the damaged tissue after infarction,’ she says, ‘and monitor cell engraftment and the effects on cardiac function non-invasively, using magnetic resonance (MR) imaging.’ The research is still in its early stages, with much to be learned about the best way of preparing and delivering the cells before cell transplants could be offered to human patients, but Professor Clarke is optimistic: ‘Once we maximise the potential for therapeutic benefit and minimise the possible complications, cellular therapy may even replace the need for long-term medical treatment or heart-transplantation’, she says.