There are 22 million people worldwide living with heart failure, a condition in which the heart is no longer able to pump blood through the body. Despite the smorgasbord of drugs and repair procedures available, half of these patients die within five years of diagnosis. Biologist Doris Taylor and her team at the University of Minnesota have created a whole new approach: Take a donor heart, remove the cells, and put the patient's cells back into it. The technique promises not only to shrink the transplant waiting list but also to keep patients' bodies from rejecting their new hearts.
Taylor's process—so far perfected in rats—entails flushing the cells out of a heart using a detergent, leaving only the skeletal-looking extracellular matrix. The young progenitor cells she injects into this matrix come from the recipient animal's own body, reducing the risk of incompatibility. Astoundingly, the new cells are able to divide and form specialized tissues, creating an organ that's as good as the original.
Having proved this year that she can make the hearts beat, Taylor next plans to test the technique in human trials. If all goes well, refurbished hearts should be transplant-ready in a decade. "It won't be easy," she says, "but the fact that it looks doable is amazing. www.stemcell.umn.edu
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