Scientists to explore how stem cells could heal heart attack damage

11 December 2017        

Category: Research

Scientists at the University of Surrey are to investigate how stem cells could be used to repair the heart after it’s damaged by a heart attack.

An image of human myofibroblasts growing in a dish.

An image of human myofibroblasts growing in a dish. Myofibroblasts have been stained with fluorescent molecules to identify the nuclei in red, and the cell body in green. 

A heart attack happens when the heart muscle is starved of oxygen-rich blood. This damages the heart muscle causing scar tissue to form. Scarred heart tissue is stiff and unable to contract, reducing the ability of the heart to pump blood to the body.

One option for a future treatment is to transplant new heart muscle cells – cardiomyocytes – made from stem cells into the damaged area.

For this to be effective and safe, it is important the transplanted cells work in tandem with the patient’s own heart. To do this Dr Patrizia Camelliti has been awarded £108,000 by the BHF to examine how newly implanted heart cells behave when they are in contact with cells called myofibroblasts.

Heart scars are rich in myofibroblasts which are produced as part of wound healing process. Unfortunately, they can also interfere with electrical signals that control how the heart beats. If the newly implanted heart cells do not contract in response to electrical activity, or spread the electrical current across the heart in an unsynchronised way, it could cause life-threatening irregular heart rhythms.

Studying cells

To examine how the two types of cells interact, Dr Camelliti and her colleagues have developed a way to simulate the heart scar environment in a dish, by growing human stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes and myofibroblasts together. With this funding, they will use a high-powered microscope and other experiments to study how the cells work together.

They will examine the effect of their interactions on the stem cell-derived cells, in particular how they handle electrical activity. The results from this work could spotlight ways to improve the effectiveness and safety of emerging stem cell therapies for hearts that are damaged after a heart attack.

Dr Patrizia Camelliti said: “While the treatment and management of heart disease has advanced greatly, there is still no effective way to repair damage caused by a heart attack.

“Stem cell therapies offer the possibility of restoring heart function, but we have to be sure that this treatment is safe.

“Unravelling the effect of myofibroblasts on electrical function and learning more about how they work will be an important step towards unlocking the exciting potential that stem cells offer to repair the heart.”

Future treatment

Dr Noel Faherty, Senior Research Advisor at the BHF, said: “Understanding why newly transplanted heart cells can trigger dangerous heart rhythms is an urgent question for scientists.

“If we’re not able to address that problem, then it won’t be possible to start the clinical trials that would be needed to make this type of stem cell treatment available to patients.

“Vital research projects like this one are only possible thanks to the generosity of the public. It’s only with their continued support that we can continue to fund the research that will deliver the breakthroughs that can help improve the treatment, prevention and cure of heart disease.”

Most deaths from coronary heart disease are caused by a heart attack. In the UK there are nearly 200,000 hospital visits each year due to heart attacks: the equivalent of one every three minutes. An estimated 915,000 people alive in the UK today have survived a heart attack. In the 1960s more than 7 out of 10 heart attacks in the UK were fatal. Today at least 7 out of 10 people survive.