Harvard Heart Letter

Repairing the heart one cell at a time

Flexible stem cells offer promise for regenerating damaged heart muscle.

The heart has many talents. It beats with great regularity millions of times a month. It speeds and slows in response to the body's need for oxygen. It even "talks" to the kidneys and other organs. One talent the heart doesn't have is the ability to repair itself after an injury. The damage from a heart attack is usually permanent, one reason why heart failure often follows.

Scientists have long viewed regenerating heart muscle as a fantastic goal. Stem cells offer a kind of yellow brick road, full of setbacks and surprises, to that cardiovascular Oz. Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the potential to develop into heart muscle, blood vessels, nerves, or any other type of cell. Adding them to the heart, so the thinking goes, will lead to healthy, fully functioning new heart muscle.

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