Regeneration May One Day Prevent, Treat, and Cure Heart Failure
Your heart is a muscle. Muscle is a type of tissue. After heart attacks, some heart tissue dies and is replaced by scar tissue. Unlike other tissue, heart tissue cannot regenerate itself. The end result here is a weaker heart and heart failure.1-2
Some animals have the ability to regenerate. Salamanders can regrow limbs that are cut off. Flatworms with their heads cut off can grow new bodies. Humans do not have this type of regeneration ability.2
That said, some tissue inside your body can regenerate itself. Regenerate means that it has the ability to regrow new tissue. Skeletal (bone) tissue does have the ability to regenerate itself which is how your body repairs when you strain a muscle.1-3
Other parts of the human body that can regenerate include skin, blood, intestines, and liver. In fact, a surgeon can remove part of a liver, and the remaining part regenerates itself. The liver can then become the same size as it was before, and function normally.3
So, what if researchers learn how to regenerate heart tissue? Will this allow them to fix heart damage caused by heart attacks? Will this allow them to prevent, or cure, diseases like heart failure? This is their hope.
Your heart does not have the ability to regenerate. Still, what if researchers can learn more about regeneration and how to harness that power? Could they someday learn how to regenerate heart tissue? Could this be used to prevent, treat, and maybe even cure heart failure and heart disease? These are questions that researchers are now asking.
What to become?
Stem cells are interesting cells. We hear a lot about them as potential treatments for various disease processes, including heart failure. Stem cells are cells that have yet to decide what type of cells to become. They can become many different types of cells, such as lung cells or heart cells.4
There are two types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells can become any type of cell. Adult stem cells generally come from specific body parts, such as your liver, and have more limited potential in terms of what they can become. Your liver and skeletal muscles have stem cells that help explain their ability to regenerate.2,4
Heart cells lack the ability to regenerate themselves and researchers think this may be due to a lack of heart stem cells. It may also be due to a lack of mitosis of the heart muscle fibers. Mitosis is a process where a cell divides to make two cells that are the same.1-2,5
Cell regeneration after heart transplants
Still, some researchers are confident they can cause heart cell regeneration. One study showed that some cell regeneration had taken place several years after heart transplants. They found that 7-16% of cells on the new organ were the patient’s own cells.1
Researchers also found “cells with some characteristics of stem cells” in both transplanted and non-transplanted hearts. They speculated that these cells came from other bodily cells, such as blood cells. This study gave them hope that they could learn to duplicate this process which might lead to treatment for both heart failure and heart disease.1
Interestingly, at the present time, there is only one type of stem cell used as a treatment for a disease - adult stem cells from bone marrow. These are stem cells that will become red blood cells. They are used in bone marrow transplants to help cancer patients grow new blood cells.4
That is the hope of researchers as they continue research in this area. As researchers Lee and Walsh note: "Some of our predictions may seem as fanciful as science fiction, but we note that this is how implantable defibrillators and drug-eluting stents were once viewed."2
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