Three labs at Emory have published papers in the last year addressing this problem. All describe some kind of supportive biomaterials, consisting of capsules or a gel, which help cells stay put and stay alive, in experiments where recovery from a heart attack is modeled in rodents.
The most recent comes from cardiologist Young-sup Yoon and colleagues, in ACS Nano. The first author is Kiwon Ban, a senior postdoc in Yoon’s laboratory. Ban and his team use self-assembling peptides, developed in collaboration with biomaterials engineer Ho-wook Jun at UAB (see figure). The peptides form a gel that both physically keeps cardiac muscle cells in the heart and eases their integration into the heart tissue over a period of weeks. As Katie Bourzac explains in Chemical & Engineering News:
One peptide acts like a natural protein that adheres to cells and promotes cell survival. The second peptide is readily broken down by a protease. The team designed the gel so that when it is implanted, it begins to degrade a bit, allowing cells from the body to migrate in. Eventually the gel should disintegrate completely as the heart tissue builds its own extracellular matrix. This particular gel has already performed well as a support for other kinds of cells grown from stem cells, including pancreatic and muscle cells.
The main differences are apparent in two areas: the supportive material and in the source of cells. With mesenchymal stem cells, the paracrine effect — providing growth and survival factors — is the name of the game, not becoming part of the cardiac tissue permanently. Mesenchymal stem cells, potentially available in the clinic through tapping patients’ bone marrow, are not going to be able to engraft into the heart because they can’t become cardiac muscle, or new blood vessels. But with cardiac progenitor cells or differentiated cardiac muscle cells, engraftment is researchers’ goal. Cardiac progenitor cells can be purified from cardiac tissue biopsies and then grown in culture. Doctors could obtain differentiated cardiac muscle cells by generating induced pluripotent stem cells from patients’ skin or blood cells, and then differentiating those cells into cardiac muscle cells (a process Yoon, Ban and Gang Bao’s lab at Georgia Tech have also described in a 2013 paper).