Technion Scientists Create Heart Cells from Skin Cells

Scientists at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have discovered a way to create beating heart cells using human skin cells reprogrammed to become stem cells.

Published in the latest issue of Circulation, the findings by Prof. Lior Gepstein of the Technion’s Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and Rambam Medical Center could make it possible to clinically repair damaged human hearts.  Such an application is at least 10-20 years away, says Gepstein, but the process can already be utilized for in-depth study of genetic diseases and the development of personalized drugs for irregular heartbeats and other inherited disorders.

Prof Lior Gepstein

Prof. Lior Gepstein

The team's work is based on the research of Japanese scientists followed by other groups, who generated "induced pluripotent stem cells" (iPSCs) from adult mouse and human skin cells. The iPSCs can be turned into almost any type of body cell something that experts previously thought possible only with embryonic stem cells and could, in theory, be used to repair damaged or diseased tissues.

Taking a patient’s own cells and turning them into iPSCs for use in tissue repair and regeneration would also eliminate the risk for rejection by the body.

Gepstein and his team used reprogrammed iPSCs derived from healthy human subjects’ skin cells with the characteristics of pluripotent embryonic stem cells.  They were then able to convert them into heart cells with all the necessary properties such as expression of heart-related genes, spontaneous electrical activity, mechanical contraction, and response to various hormones such as adrenaline.

According to Gepstein, the rejuvenation of human cells and their transformation into iPSCs can be done with almost any human cell.

Certain challenges exist, however.  One hazard of using iPSCs and ordinary embryonic stem cells, too is the possibility that the cells will begin to divide wildly and turn cancerous.  As a result, "it will be years before they are used clinically," said Gepstein.  Animal studies could eventually lead to clinical work, but scientists would have to learn how to make large amounts of the iPSC-derived heart cells, he said.

The findings could someday lead to advances in research on diseases caused by single-gene mutations.  The list of these diseases includes familial arrhythmogenic syndromes leading to irregular heartbeat and sudden cardiac death, cardiomyopathies that weaken the heart muscle, and several neurodegenerative disorders.

Nearly eight years ago, Gepstein and colleagues made headlines by creating beating cardiac tissue in the lab from human embryonic stem cells.  In 2007, he teamed with the Technion’s Dr. Shulamit Levenberg to create tiny blood vessels within the tissue a breakthrough that could eventually make it possible to implant the tissue in a diseased human heart.

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is Israel's leading science and technology university.  Home to the country's winners of the Nobel Prize in science, it commands a worldwide reputation for its pioneering work in nanotechnology, computer science, biotechnology, water-resource management, materials engineering, aerospace and medicine.  The majority of the founders and managers of Israel's high-tech companies are alumni. Based in New York City, the American Technion Society (ATS) is the leading American organization supporting higher education in Israel, with offices around the country.


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