New discovery of adult stem cells gives fresh possibilities for heart regeneration

Sydney researchers have discovered a new population of adult stem cells in the heart, which could augment the development of new regeneration and repair therapies for people who have suffered heart attack or heart failure, the leading cause of death in Australia.

The research, led by Professor Richard Harvey and his team at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute (VCCRI) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney, is published in the international journal Cell Stem Cell today. 

Professor Harvey, who is Head of the Developmental & Stem Cell Biology Division at VCCRI and Sir Peter Finley Professor at UNSW, says the findings, which used the mouse as a model system, are hugely exciting.

“The first part of our study was actually the discovery and characterisation of a new population of multi-potent, adult stem cells that live in the heart – that is, stem cells that are extremely powerful in dividing, and responding to their native environment to form whatever tissue is needed for repair.

“The fact that this new group of cells are multi-potent, and highly specific to the heart, gives us great hope that when we translate these cells into the human setting, they will work well at regenerating and repairing a broken heart – or a heart that has suffered injury through heart attack or heart failure,” added Professor Harvey.

Heart disease claimed the lives of over 22,500 Australians in 2009, killing one Australian every 23 minutes.*

The findings come following recent reports in scientific literature and news media that stem cells harvested from human hearts during surgery show promise for reversing heart attack damage.

This is the first time this new population of stem cells has been formally described, and its origins clearly defined.

“These cells appeared to have characteristics that were very similar to cells that normally live in bone marrow, which acts as a reservoir for cells that can help to repair damaged tissue in many organs around the body.  What we wanted to know was, did these cells derive from those general bone marrow cells, or were their origins from much earlier on and specific to the heart?”

Using the mouse model, the researchers applied genetic tools that produce indelible marks to track the origins of cells from very early in embryonic development, right through to adulthood. 

“We found that the adult heart stem cells have their origins not in the bone marrow, but in an early embryonic stem cell population that gives rise to the heart itself.  This means that the functions of these adult heart stem cells are likely to be highly dedicated to that organ, and thus highly tuned to its regenerative processes,” continued Professor Harvey.

Regeneration therapies involve ‘waking up’ resident stem cells and stimulating them to migrate to the site of injury in the organ or tissue itself.  This differs from cell therapies in which stem cells are extracted from the heart and grown in a tissue culture dish before being directly injected or infused into the damaged area.

“We believe this population of cells are very high up in the stem cell hierarchy, and can generate a number of progenitor cells that would exist in a healthy heart, ready for action,” added Professor Harvey.  “This could bode very well for regeneration therapies that are just beginning to be trialed around the world with other populations of stem cells.” 

Professor Harvey will be working as part of a new Australian Research Council (ARC) funded initiative, Stem Cells Australia, to explore the potential for these cells to participate in cardiac regeneration.  He says the next step will be to characterise the human cells and test them in animal models, before exploring the viability of clinical trials for patients who have had heart attacks or heart failure.  It’s hoped this would begin in the next 3-5 years.

  1. *Heart disease data and statistics
  2. This study was funded by grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC) and the ARC Special Research Initiative in Stem Cell Research (Stem Cells Australia), the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, National Heart Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, Johnson and Johnson, Cancer Institute New South Wales, Australian Cancer Research Foundation, Royal Australian College of Surgeons, The Avner Nahmani Pancreatic Cancer Foundation and RT Hall Trust.

About the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute

Established in 1994, the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute (VCCRI) is committed to excellence into heart disease and cardiovascular biology research, cardiovascular research training and facilitating the rapid application of research discoveries to patient care.  In Australia alone, heart muscle diseases - the cause of heart failure - are responsible for the death of over 130,000 people annually with 400 new cases being added each week. For more information visit


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News-Medical.Net.
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