It is the future of medicine. A tiny stem cell from your own body groomed to replicate and replace dead and damaged cells in a variety of vital organs – including the heart. Right now, some of the most advanced work on this pioneering approach to heart disease is happening at San Diego State University.
When SDSU professor Mark Sussman received $9.5 million from the National Institutes of Health nearly five years ago, scientists were only just beginning to understand the heart’s ability to heal.
It had long been understood that much of the body can heal itself – whether it is a cut, a broken bone or a torn muscle – but until recently, it was assumed that cells damaged during a heart attack or stroke could never be repaired.
Oh, how far they have come!
Sussman and his fellow researchers at the SDSU Heart Institute have discovered that heart cells do regenerate, but at a much slower rate than the rest of the body. And as you age, that reparative capacity slows down even further.
"This is a huge shift in the way that medicine is done."
“Now, we know that heart cells do in fact regenerate, how they do it, and what we can do to help them regenerate faster and stronger,” said Sussman.
Fountain of youth
Supported by the NIH grant, the Heart Institute team examined characteristics of young cells in the heart to determine how older cells could be made young again.
With heart disease still the number one cause of death and hospitalization in the U.S., finding ways to help individuals recover from acute heart damage is more important than ever.
Using cardiac stem cells from human heart-failure patients, researchers in Sussman’s laboratory replicated them and then applied a molecule known as Pim-1, which acts like the proverbial “fountain of youth,” to enhance regenerative potential of the damaged cells.
“With the help of Pim-1, these aged stem cells grew faster, were more resistant to dying, and worked twice as well,” Sussman said. “When introduced back into the damaged region created by a heart attack, these newly restored stem cells enhanced repair and regeneration by forming new heart tissue and improving contraction force of the heart beat.”
Pim-1’s remarkable ability to enhance cellular regeneration in the damaged heart has set the course for future research directions in the Sussman laboratory. Clinical trials next
He has applied for renewal of his NIH grant to support a series of clinical trials that would apply the team’s success in the lab to patients with broken hearts.
“This is a huge shift in the way that medicine is done,” said Sussman, currently the chair of the Council on Basic Cardiovascular Sciences for the American Heart Association. “We essentially want to retrain transplant surgeons from replacing the entire heart and show them how to repair a heart with stem cells.”
Moreover, cells would be harvested from the patient’s body, neatly avoiding the controversial practice of using embryonic stem cells in the healing process.
“Using cells from your own body to heal thyself. That is the future.”
Leadership Starts Here
Sussman's efforts exemplify faculty leadership at San Diego State University. Learn more about SDSU students, faculty and alumni leading in their communities and around the globe.