Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital have found, for the first time that young humans (infants, children and adolescents) are capable of generating new heart muscle cells. These findings refute the long-held belief that the human heart grows after birth exclusively by enlargement of existing cells, and raise the possibility that scientists could stimulate production of new cells to repair injured hearts.
Findings of the study, "Cardiomyocyte proliferation contributes to post-natal heart growth in young humans," were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Online Early Edition, the week of Jan 7-Jan 11, 2013. The study was led by Bernhard K-hn, MD, of the Department of Cardiology at Boston Children's.
Beginning in 2009, Dr. K-hn and his team looked at specimens from healthy human hearts, ranging in age from 0 to 59 years. Using several laboratory assays, they documented that cells in these hearts were still dividing after birth, significantly expanding the heart cell population. The cells regenerated at their highest rates during infancy. Regeneration declined after infancy, rose during the adolescent growth spurt, and continued up until around age 20.
The findings offer the strongest evidence to date that proliferation of cardiomyocytes (the cells making up heart muscle) contributes to growth in healthy young human hearts.