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Monday, 13 November, 2000, 00:25 GMT
Bone marrow rescue for failing hearts
Heart failure affects many thousands of UK patients
Cells taken from the bones of animals are able to convert into new muscle in their hearts, researchers say.

The breakthrough has possible implications for thousands of patients who are suffering from heart failure, although it may be years before the technique is tried on humans.

The Canadian research was reported at a conference of the American Heart Association.

The technique involves using stem cells - immature "master" cells which, in their earliest form are the source for every type of cell in the body.

These can be found in the bone marrow of humans and animals.

In this case, rats were used to test the theory that stem cells could be converted into new muscle cells, simply by placing them in the heart.

The heart is an unusual organ in that its cells do not reproduce and replace themselves in the same way as virtually every other cell in the body does.

As the body grows, the heart grows by enlarging the cells rather than making more of them - but when the cells die, they are not replaced, and if enough are lost, heart failure can set in.

For the research, 22 rats were each given an injection of a certain type of stem cell taken from the marrow.

Marked transformation

The cells were marked with a fluorescent chemical so their progress could then be measured.

Professor Ray Chiu, who is leading the research at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, said: "We found that the cells survived and looked like heart muscle."

In all, cells in 20 of the 22 rats made the necessary changes.

The research team also found signs of the production of two heart muscle proteins by the cells, which indicated that the new heart muscle cells were linking up to work together with the existing heart muscle.

The key to the transformation of the stem cells appeared to be very close contact with existing heart muscle cells.

Stem cells which were not so close to the muscle cells changed a little, but not as completely.

The advantage of using a patient's own bone marrow stem cells to "beef up" the heart muscle would be that the cells would not be rejected by the immune system of the patient.

This would mean there would be no need for a weak patient to take immunosuppressive drugs which may weaken them further.

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