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Monday, 8 November, 1999, 19:09 GMT
Umbilical cord cells could create heart bypasses
Technique could transform heart surgery
Cells from the umbilical cords of new-born babies may help heart patients to develop their own heart bypasses avoiding the need for risky transplant surgery, say Japanese researchers.

By implanting cells taken from umbilical cord blood into rats, the scientists were able to stimulate the growth of new blood vessels and to increase blood supply to the rats' hearts.

Doctors around the world are experimenting with a number of different methods of angiogenesis - the creation of new blood vessels in the heart.

Until now, blocked arteries have been dealt with in a number of ways, including a heart bypass, when a new vein is added to divert blood flow around the blockage, and angioplasty, when the existing vein is stretched or scraped to improve blood flow.

But many operations are not successful, the new arteries become blocked again and patients are too ill to undergo further surgery.

Dr Toyoaki Murohara, of Kurume University School of Medicine in Japan, told the American Heart Association meeting in Atlanta that research by he and his colleagues could offer hope to human transplant patients.

Umbilical cords are known to be a rich source of hematopoietic stem cells, the cells which generate new cells of all types.

Dr Murohara and his team found stem cells that had started to become endothelial cells, which are the cells that line the inside of blood vessels. They called these endothelial progenitor cells.

These were taken from human umbilical cords, grown in laboratory dishes and transplanted into the hearts of rats.

"Significant increase" in blood flow

The cells not only took hold, but went on to develop new capillaries (minute blood vessels). Dr Murohara said they caused a "significant increase" in blood flow.

However, he said that further tests were needed before the process could be attempted in humans.

A spokesman for the British Heart Foundation said: "Although a number of angioegenesis techniques are now in development, including gene therapy and the use of growth factors, this latest research suggests an interesting new approach.

"Clearly umbilical cords in ready supply as they are a "by-product" of every birth. So if this were to develop into a new treatment for heart problems, supply and demand should not be an issue as it is in some other areas of transplantation.

" However, even if the technique ultimately proves its worth scientifically, there might still be ethical and other concerns to be addressed before this could become a routine treatment."

The BHF stressed that as yet it was far from clear whether or not angiogenesis, though whatever technique, would hold real promise as an alternative treatment for coronary heart disease.

"However, exploring new techniques such as this is vital in terms of showing that angiogenesis works and in hopefully translating that finding into real treatments for patients."

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