Harvard Heart Letter

Small step forward for stem cells, giant leaps remain

Stem cell type and timing of treatment seem to matter most.

Results from the first-ever trial using stem cells that normally reside in the heart had the scientific community using adjectives like "astounding" and "compelling." But as encouraging as the findings were, keep in mind that stem cell research is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before yielding effective treatments for heart disease.

Stem cells are "raw material" cells that can develop into other types of cells. Some stem cells, like embryonic stem cells, can become a heart muscle cell, a liver cell, or virtually any other type of cell. Other stem cells have more limited potential, but still can perform vital functions, like producing blood cells. Early stem cell research ignited hope that tissue damaged by a heart attack or other cardiac travail could be regenerated.

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