Erasing the need for heart transplants

U-M doctors are exploring ways to grow heart tissue for patients, from their own skin cells. It may sound like a plot point from a sci-fi thriller, but turning skin cells into heart tissue is what Ming-Sing Si, MD, a pediatric cardiac surgeon at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, is doing in his research lab. One day, it might eliminate the need for heart transplantation.

“Heart transplantation has its shortcomings — a shortage of organs, organ rejection and the side effects of the anti-rejection medications,” explains Dr. Si. “If we can create new components from a person’s own cells, we’re creating something personalized for that patient. We’ll be able to create what we need and avoid the organ rejection complications.”

Dr. Si and his collaborators specialize in regenerative medicine, a field that’s made remarkable strides in the last six to seven years.

Dr. Si and his team use human cells, such as a skin cell, that have been converted to something called a pluripotent stem cell. Pluripotent stem cells can be used much like embryonic stem cells, but without the ethical concerns.

“We take the pluripotent stem cells and expose them to a growth factor so that it assumes the specification of embryonic tissue that is developing into heart tissue,” says Dr. Si. “The growth factors are a chemical signal produced during development that dictates how that cell will develop. We are working with millions of cells at a time and bathe them in the growth factor in a petri dish.”

To create the blood vessels, Dr. Si and his collaborators embed native blood vessel tissue in a biological gel where it will start sprouting new blood vessels — just like planting a garden. This process is called angiogenesis.

“The goal is to combine the two — the heart muscle tissue and the blood vessels — to create heart components that can be implanted in a person, ultimately replacing heart transplantation,” says Dr. Si.

Although Dr. Si feels the strides being made in the lab today won’t be applicable to patients for a decade or so, each advance these researchers make brings us one step closer to creating an alternative to heart transplants.

Learn more about the Congenital Heart Center at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at www.mottchildren.org/congenital

SAVE THE DATE:  Annual Young ICD Connection event, October 26, 2013 at the Ann Arbor City Club.  An event for young people, at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, who have implantable cardioverter/defibrillator devices.

Questions?  Contact Gwen Fosse, Clinical Outreach Specialist:  gfosse@med.umich.edu.