Ever since researchers were first able to coax stem cells to grow, they've watched in awe, as a certain percentage turned into cardiac cells on their own, clustering together and beating in harmony. But now a team at San Francisco's Gladstone Institute have uncovered key genetic factors that act like an on-off switch.
"In the case of our study, there are primitive cells in the embryo called mesoderm that will give rise to heart, or bone, or blood, or even some of the cells that contribute to the placenta. So we've been able to introduce, instead of three factors, that transforms all of those cells directly into beating heart cells," says Benoit Bruneau from the Gladstone Institute.
After isolating a combination of three genes, Bruneau and his team tagged them with a fluorescent marker then injected them into a mouse embryo, targeting a section of the embryo that does not generate heart cells.
"Look at them beating away. That's because we've introduced our set of factors and transformed them into beating heart cells," says Bruneau.
Bruneau believes that set of factors could help solve a major stumbling block in stem cell research. Many early attempts to use stem cells to regenerate tissue in animals have also triggered tumors.
"So if you're thinking about stem cells or even non stem cells, let's say skin cells from an adult person and you want to turn those cells into heart cells, you want them to become only heart cells, you don't want them to become neurons. You don't want them to be cancer cells. You want them to go all the way to become heart cells," says Bruneau.
In the next few years, the team believes they'll be able to work with heart cells taken from human biopsies to potentially create therapeutic treatments for heart disease.