Dr Lam Yun-wah, Associate Professor of Department of Biology and Chemistry at City University of Hong Kong.
Sadly, it is true. Our hearts do not have much regenerative ability after they have been damaged.
The tissue in our hearts is weakened after a heart attack because the oxygen flow is interrupted. Some parts of the cardiac muscle will die and the damaged parts are replaced by scar tissue.
Because scar tissue cannot pump in the same way muscle tissue does, the heart is less effective at putting oxygen into the blood after a heart attack.
That's why scientists and researchers have been looking for ways to heal scarred heart tissue. Medication and bypass surgery were the only options until stem cell therapies became available.
These therapies are considered safe and effective because the cells are extracted from the patients’ own heart and injected directly into the muscles that need restoring.
Earlier this year a research team based at the University of California, San Diego achieved a significant breakthrough with a new injectable hydrogel. (Singelyn et al, "Catheter-deliverable hydrogel derived from decellularized ventricular extracellular matrix increases endogenous cardiomyocytes and preserves cardiac function post-myocardial infarction." J Am Coll Cardiol. 59(8):751-63. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22340268 & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COTh-nAQifs)
The gel is produced using extracts from cardiac connective tissue and injected straight into the heart. Once injected, the gel turns into a semi-solid and encourages the patients’ cells to repopulate and repair damaged areas.
These kinds of research projects are revolutionising the way doctors are treating patients. Scientists are beginning to understand how artificial materials can change the behaviour of cells inside our bodies. They hope that one day they can implant smart materials into humans and train our own cells to heal wounds and fight disease.
For more information on research and undergraduate programmes in this exciting field, please visit the website of CityU's Department of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering (http://www.cityu.edu.hk/mbe/prg-bebioe.htm)
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