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The BBC's Richard Black
"Campaigners argue that this kind of research should be banned"
 real 28k

Dr. Lior Gepstein of the Technion-Israel Institute
"We have to pass several obstacles before this can become a clinical reality"
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Wednesday, 1 August, 2001, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
Scientists grow heart cells
Microscope BBC
The breakthrough could revolutionise heart treatment
Scientists have grown heart cells in the laboratory for the first time.

The breakthrough raises hopes that doctors will eventually be able to use the technique to regenerate heart tissue damaged by disease.


It gives real hope that people with heart disease may benefit from stem cell technology in the future

Professor Sir Charles George
A team of Israeli researchers grew the tissue from stem cells taken from an embryo just days after fertilisation.

At this stage, the cells are so immature that their ultimate form has yet to be fixed.

The researchers transformed them into immature heart tissue cells called cardiomyocytes. They are convinced that if these cells were placed in an adult human heart they would develop into fully-fledged mature heart muscle.

Researcher Dr Joseph Itskovitz-Eldor, of the Faculty of Medicine and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, said: "It was shown for the first time definitely that the cells that are being created are cardiac cells that show electrical, biochemical and morphological characteristics of early or young cardiac muscle."

Therapies

Researchers are hoping to use stem cells to create therapies for a variety of illnesses - including heart disease.

Co-researcher Dr Lior Gepstein, of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, said the new cells could theoretically be injected into a non-functioning area of the heart to replace those that had died.

He said: "When we have a heart attack, the area of the heart that doesn't receive blood supply actually dies and is replaced by scar tissue.

"Because the adult heart doesn't have any regeneration capacity, this area in the heart won't contract anymore (to pump blood). So this can lead to deterioration in heart function and eventually to heart failure."

Much more work needs to be carried out before theory becomes reality. First, the researchers must find a way to increase the number of cardiomyocytes produced in the laboratory.

At present, 90% of the cells created in the experiment were not heart cells. Several million would be needed for a theoretical transplantation.

Fascinating research

Professor Sir Charles George, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, said: "A fascinating and important milestone has been reached through this research.

"It gives real hope that people with heart disease may benefit from stem cell technology in the future."

Professor George said heart failure is a growing problem - around 750,000 people suffer from the condition in the UK alone.

He said: "Further development of this work could, therefore, benefit large numbers of patients."

The research is published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

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