Cell bank to help genetic cardiovascular disease research

A specialised cell bank will be set up in Singapore next year to collect the stem cells of people with genetic cardiovascular diseases or those who are at higher risk of developing them.

This will allow scientists to study the diseases and come up with treatment tailored for patients.

They can also test cells to see if healthy people are likely to develop illnesses later in life, or to heal diseased cells and use them for treatment.

The bank, thought to be the first in Asia, will be located in the National Heart Centre Singapore's new premises at Outram Park, which will be completed by next year.

Associate Professor Philip Wong, director of the centre's research and development unit, said the team will collect skin samples from patients.

The samples will be converted into induced pluripotent stem cells, which can grow into different types of cells, such as bone, tissue and heart cells.

To assess a person's risk of heart disease, for example, scientists can collect his or her skin sample, turn it into stem cells, grow them into heart cells, and then see if the heart cells show genetic signs of disease.

This allows the scientists to evaluate a patient's risk of heart disease without extracting cells from his or her heart, which is a difficult and expensive procedure.

"Even for children, for example, we can use this method as a 'crystal ball' to check if they are likely to develop certain diseases," said Prof Wong.

In July, the scientists published a landmark study in the European Heart Journal, showing that their method can be used as an early test for the risk of arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy.

This is a rare inherited heart-muscle disease linked to sudden death among young men, and is traditionally detected only at a late stage or after death.

Prof Wong said the team's method could also be used to repair collected, diseased stem cells for treatment of the patient from whom they are collected.

He said: "If we find that the stem cell will grow into a diseased heart cell, we could find out how to repair it so it grows into a healthy heart cell.

"We could then implant the healthy engineered cells back in the patient's body or use gene therapy to change the diseased cells in the body."

If the diagnosis and treatment are done for children, they could prevent the children from developing the disease in the first place, he added.

The team plans to investigate other heart diseases such as Long QT syndrome, which is a heart rhythm disorder, and Brugada syndrome, an abnormality in the heart's electrical system which causes life-threatening heart rhythm disturbances.

In 2009, the team received US$8.9 million (S$10.8 million) in funding over five years from the National Research Foundation to study cardiac repair and stem cells in the ageing population.

zengkun@sph.com.sg


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