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Growing a new heart?

24 October 2006

In surgery that reshapes the heart it may be possible to further improve heart function by replacing the dead or damaged heart cells with new ones.

A problem with this is that, unlike cells in some other organs of the body, heart cells cannot divide to produce new ones. However, certain cells called stem cells have the potential to develop into any other kind of cell, including heart cells.

In adults, stem cells are found in a few organs and bone marrow. So a patient’s own bone marrow could potentially be used to provide stem cells to replace damaged heart cells. But only a small fraction of adult stem cells can transform into heart cells, and the process is not very efficient. Recent research at the Bristol Heart Institute suggests that embryonic and foetal stem cells may be much more potent in stimulating growth and repair of the heart than adult stem cells. But use of embryonic and foetal tissue is controversial and raises ethical issues.

Experts in Medical Ethics at the Bristol Heart Institute are actively looking at issues surrounding the use of stem cells, especially the implications of current European legislation. The UK government’s present position is that research using all sources of stem cells should be supported, because: “Currently it is too early to know where the most useful findings will come from”.

The Bristol Heart Institute

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