Can the heart repair itself?
The news media has been reporting all week that scientists now have evidence that damaged heart muscle can repair itself. This is true, but any clinical benefit that might derive from this new knowledge is a long way off.
As reported by investigators from the New York Medical College in the January 3, 2002 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, after a heart transplant, heart muscle cells from the recipient (i.e., the person receiving the heart transplant) can migrate to the transplanted heart, and can grow and replicate themselves there. This observation constitutes new knowledge, since it has always been thought that heart cells are incapable of regenerating themselves in any way. Based on this new observation, scientists are now speculating that there might be such a thing as a heart stem cell. (Stem cells are primitive cells that can differentiate into one of several types of tissue.)
This finding is very important, but is of no immediate use to people with heart disease today. The fact remains that when the heart muscle is damaged (from a heart attack, for instance, or from any form of cardiomyopathy,) that muscle does not repair itself. Instead, the damaged cells are replaced by scar tissue.
Then what is the significance of this new finding?
If it is true that under some circumstances heart muscle cells can regenerate themselves - and especially if it is true that such a thing as a heart muscle stem cell exists - then there is probably a way to stimulate such self-regeneration. Based on the observation reported this week, research has already begun in several institutions to figure out how this phenomenon can be reproduced. Some day, doctors may be able to administer treatment that will help damaged hearts to call on their inherent regenerative powers.
But, breathless news reports to the contrary notwithstanding, this new study published in the New England Journal offers no immediate solace to patients with heart disease.Previous Articles
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