Researchers create heart cells from skin

PHOTO: Researchers create heart cells from skin

SINGAPORE - In the future, patients in need of a heart transplant could be spared the agonising wait for an organ donor.

A research breakthrough at the National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS) has paved the way for patients to use their skin cells to repair damaged heart tissue through a safer way than current methods.

Speaking at a media briefing yesterday, Associate Professor Philip Wong, director of NHCS' research and development unit, said the research could address the lack of donor hearts for patients here.

Singapore's heart-donation programme was started in 1990, but there have been only 53 heart transplants to date.

In Singapore, there are about 5,000 cases of heart failure each year, and numbers are set to rise with an ageing population.

The NHCS research project, which started in 2009, is funded by a $9-million National Research Foundation grant.

Prof Wong explained that the process involves using a heart patient's own skin cells to generate stem cells. Stem cells are cells that have the potential to change into other human cells.

These stem cells can then be transformed into fully functional adult heart-muscle cells. The entire process takes one to two months.

It is envisaged that such heart cells could be transplanted into the patient to treat his heart condition.

Prof Wong said NHCS' research is safer than existing methods because NHCS does not use a viral technique. Only a "handful" of research laboratories globally are capable of doing this, he added.

The existing method of using viruses carries the risk of infection and tumours for patients.

Prof Wong said that NHCS' research would offer an alternative to a heart transplant, which has accompanying risks.

Patients who undergo heart transplants have to take special drugs to prevent rejection of the transplanted organs, he explained.

These drugs can have detrimental side effects. For instance, drugs like steroids can cause bone loss and diabetes.

On the other hand, using transplanted heart cells made from a patient's skin would not have tissue-rejection problems, so special drugs are not needed.

NHCS' research has other potential applications as well. For example, the effectiveness of a drug to treat a patient's heart condition could first be tested on heart cells made from his skin.

This would give more precise results than relying on studies of the drug on other patients.

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