heart attack

Microspheres could bring stem cell therapy to broken hearts

A new method for stem cell therapy could help treat heart disease, claim UCL researchers.

Using tiny spherical structures called microspheres, the stem cells can be targeted to stick to a specific tissue where they can take over lost function from dead or damaged cells.

Heart failure is a growing problem, because while people are surviving heart attacks in greater numbers due to better medical care, the damage to the heart tissue is leading to the UK’s aging population becoming more susceptible to heart failure.

Stem cells have long been looked to for a method of treating damaged organs without the need for transplants.

Leader of imaging Dr Daniel Stuckey said: “To truly mend broken hearts, it is important that stem cells are delivered in a way that allows them to survive within their new environment and turn into heart muscle cells.”

What are microspheres?

The research team, with funding from the British Heart Foundation, has managed to develop a way of sticking the new heart cells in place with biodegradable microspheres that act as scaffolding for the cells to adhere to.

stem cells adhering to a 0.25mm microsphere, about the size of a full stop.

The microspheres are a quarter of a millimetre wide, able to fit inside a syringe and be injected without losing their shape.

PhD student Annalisa Bettini, who led the study, explained that the technology can be applied more broadly.

The microspheres can be mixed with Barium Sulphate, a compound that is highly visible on X-rays, so that they can be tracked within the body after being injected.

This also allows for measuring how long the microspheres remain in the body before biodegrading, which tells us whether the new cells have been accepted.

When injected into rats, the microspheres persisted for up to six days.

In addition to creating injections, they can also be used to create ‘patches’ over damaged tissues that provide new options for cardiologists in treating patients.

The results of the study were presented at the British Cardiovascular Society Conference, and they hope to see the technology tested in humans within 10 years.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are a type of cell found in the body that are able to turn into one of several types of cells.

Stem cells found in bone marrow, for example, can turn into most types of cell found in the blood.

Most stem cells in the body are found in low numbers, and have limits on what they can grow into.

If extracted from the body can be made to grow in certain ways or in larger numbers.

For these heart therapies, the stem cells are extracted and grown into heart cells on the surface of the microspheres.

Testing in a dish, the extracted stem cells formed a heart tissue that could beat for 40 days.

These can then injected into the heart, where they can be incorporated as new healthy heart tissue.

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