Scientists at the University of Minnesota have combined young cells with dead hearts to make...new hearts. Yes, that's right sci-fi fans: They grew a new, living, beating heart right there in their lab.
How they did it: Researchers used new heart cells from baby rats and combined them with the valves and "outer structure" of an adult rat's dead heart. In two weeks, "the cells formed a new beating heart that conducted electrical impulses and pumped a small amount of blood," reported the New York Times. As the scientists detailed in Nature Medicine yesterday, the newly created hearts were implanted in other rats, and were not rejected. The process, called "whole organ recellularization," could be done with virtually any organ, said researcher Doris Taylor.
Heart disease is a leading cause of death in our country. Currently, there are about 3,000 people waiting for donor hearts and 550,000 people are diagnosed with heart disease each year. Even for those lucky enough to get a donor heart, the surgery provides no guarantee that their body won't reject the organ. The new process reduces risk of rejection and actually increases the chance that the body will grow new blood vessels and muscles on the implanted heart. So the discovery that we may be able to some day re-grow our own hearts for implantation is encouraging, to say the least. If this kind of procedure were to be used in humans (and scientists involved in the experiment emphasize that that's about 10 years away), stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow would be injected into a specially prepared heart-like structure made from cadaver parts.
But if we ever have the ready option of organ replacement, will we live our lives differently? Will we eat hamburgers and cheesecake in abandon, secure in the knowledge that heart #2 is waiting for us in a freezer somewhere? My biggest question, really: Would this therapy be affordable for all, or for like many other medical breakthroughs would only the rich be able to afford it? Which brings us back to reason number 2,360 to support universal healthcare.