Stem cells have been successfully extracted from veins left over from heart bypass surgery. Scientists hope that such cells could be used in the treatment of future heart conditions by stimulating the growth of new arteries.
The scientific breakthrough was published in a recent edition of the peer-reviewed journal Circulation. The study was a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Bristol, UK, and the University of Udine, Italy, funded by the British Heart Foundation and the UK's National Institute for Health Research. Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, described the results as very encouraging, bringing the possibility of 'cell therapy' for damaged hearts one step closer.
The researchers investigated whether stem cells could be extracted from leg veins used in coronary artery bypass surgery. Stem cells are undifferentiated (immature) cells with the ability to become any specific type of cell. Using just four to five centimetre portions of leg vein the scientists were successfully able to isolate stem cells. The research team then used these cells to generate a large number of stem cells in culture. The newly generated cells were injected into mice with a restricted blood supply. The injection stimulated new blood vessel growth and improved blood flow compared with placebo injections.
Lead researcher on the study, Professor Paolo Madeddu from the University of Bristol, told BBC News Online that this is the first time that scientists have been able to extract stem cells from portions of vein left over from heart operations. He suggested that this advance might make it possible for a patient having heart bypass surgery to also receive heart treatment using their own body's stem cells. The researchers were quick to emphasise that much more work will be necessary before the cells can be used in humans.
Surgeons performing bypass surgery routinely take slightly more vein than is required, so these leftover portions of leg vein would be a convenient source of stem cells. The use of leg veins would also allow researchers to side-step some of the ethical dilemmas associated with stem cell research, such as the use of embryos in the laboratory to obtain embryonic stem cells.