Skin cells pointing way to new treatments

22nd June 2015

Researchers studying heart muscle cells made from the skin cells of people with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) say they have identified some of the basic properties causing the cells’ problems.

The team at Stanford University School of Medicine in America have been investigating why these hearts cells differ from those made from the skin of healthy people. They had already discovered that the DCM ones responded differently to the waves of calcium that control the timing and strength of each contraction.

Skin cells into heart cells

Now the same team, investigating the basis of the differences, have identified ways to partially restore function to the DCM cells grown in a laboratory dish. They saw how a pathway that stimulates cells to increase and use energy production develops as heart muscle cells mature, and identified how it functions in both normal and diseased cells.

The researchers say, in a report published online in Cell Stem Cell, that they hope the findings will help doctors better hone treatments for a variety of heart conditions that are now often treated in a similar way.

'Right now, nearly all patients with cardiomyopathy are given drugs to modulate the same beta-adrenergic pathway in the heart, which is known to be dysfunctional,' said Dr Joseph Wu, director of Stanford's Cardiovascular Institute. 'But until now, we've not known what exactly is going wrong with this pathway at a molecular level.'

The study used induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, to make heart muscle cells from skin. IPS cells can be encouraged to develop into many tissue in the body. The science gives researchers a variety of human cell types, such as brain and heart muscle cells, to work on that are typically difficult to obtain.

The study adds to other suggestions that heart muscle cells made from skin cells accurately show the details of diseases that those from whom the skin cells were taken.