Apr 2014
Mini-heart Screen Capture

Thinking outside the heart

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Stem cell derived mini-heart can pump blood through sluggish veins

A U.S.-based researcher has come up with what she believes is a stem cell solution for sluggish blood flow that could knock the socks off the current standard of care.

“Compression stockings have been used since antiquity,” says Dr. Narine Sarvazyan, a researcher at George Washington University in Washington, DC. “So we really haven’t made much progress in treating chronic venous insufficiency.”

The condition is common, affecting between 20-30% of people over the age of 50. It can be particularly distressing for people with diabetes, causing non-healing ulcers to form on their legs or ankles. It can also affect people who are paralyzed and those recovering from surgery.

Dr. Sarvazyan’s solution is to implant a “mini-heart” made of stem cell derived heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes at the site where the blood is stagnating.  The cells form a cuff that wraps around the problem vein while rhythmically contracting and releasing to move the blood along. You can see a short video of how it works here.

The invention of the mini-heart has caused quite a stir online.  It has been picked up by the Huffington Post, Science Daily and Business Standard

So far, Dr. Sarvazyan has only created “in vitro” (Petri dish) versions of the mini-hearts in her lab. Her next step, after finalizing the design, will be to move to animal tests with rats and, ultimately, pigs. In a best-case scenario, she hopes to begin clinical trials with people after about two years.

The advantage is the mini-hearts can be tailor-made from stem cells extracted from the patient’s own fatty tissue so that there will be no danger of rejection and little risk of inflammation.

“It’s a very different application,” says Dr. Sarvazyan. “Most people who work with these cardiomyocytes have a goal of repairing cardiac muscles. That is pretty much where everyone is aiming.  But the idea came into my mind that we can use the same tissue and actually use it in different locations much more easily. You don’t have to have that much structured muscle. It doesn’t have to have much force. It’s easier to vascularize because it’s smaller.”

Dr. Sarvazyan outlines the advantages in a paper called Thinking Outside the Heart, published, in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

“So far I don’t see any downsides,” she told Stem Cell NewsDesk.  “Of course, nature is much smarter than us. It’s possible when we put it in animals, something may happen that we could not predict.  I can’t say for sure that it will work — we definitely need to test it.”

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