Transplants of healthy hearts to replace those that have been ravaged by cardiovascular disease have made great strides since they were first undertaken in the late 1960s. But the sad fact of the matter is that, according to Popular Science, of the 4,000 Americans waiting for new hearts only 2,500 will receive them this year. Moreover, every patient who receives a heart transplant will run the risk of organ rejection and will have to take powerful drugs to stave that off for the rest of their lives.
The Holy Grail for organ transplants has been the possibility of growing new organs using the patient’s own stem cells. Thus, not only would everyone who needed a new organ get one, but the organ would be genetically compatible, thus with no possibility of rejection.
Recently, a team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School were able to create functioning heart tissue from stem cells. They used donor hearts that were considered unsuitable for transplantation, stripping them of cells. Then they used adult stem cells and employed a new technique using RNA to turn them into two types of cardiac cells. They infused the cells into the matrix created from the old hearts and subjected them to nutrient solution and to similar forces that a human heart would experience inside a body. In two weeks, something resembling an immature human heart had grown. The hearts started to beat with a jolt of electricity.
The experiment is the closest anyone has come to growing complete human hearts. The researchers are not there yet. They need to perfect the process so that hearts can be created that will be custom made and ready for transplant. When that happens, a giant leap will have been achieved in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.
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