'Natural' pacemaker from stem cells may replace electronics

Biological heart pacemakers made from human embryo cells have been successfully tested in pigs, raising the possibility that tissue transplants could replace electronic pacemakers.

Biological heart pacemakers made from human embryo cells have been successfully tested in pigs, raising the possibility that tissue transplants could replace electronic pacemakers.

Because they would be natural, the cell implants would need no power source and, over time, would integrate naturally with the heart. They could even be genetically engineered or manipulated to enhance or alter their function, say scientists.

Although many obstacles need to be overcome before biological pacemaker cells can be used in practice - such as ensuring they cannot form tumours - the proof-of-principle research, carried out by a team in Israel, is a landmark.

The pacemaker cells were derived from stem cells extracted from early-stage donated human embryos.

Such embryonic stem (ES) cells are unprogrammed "mother" cells able to become any type of body tissue, including nerves, organs, skin and heart muscle.

Although some find their use controversial, many scientists believe they hold the promise of revolutionary new cures and treatments for diseases ranging from Parkinson's to diabetes.

In the new study, scientists from Israel and the United States grew ES cells in the laboratory and chemically coaxed them into becoming cardiomyocytes, the standard muscle cells of the heart. The cells formed three-dimensional clusters called embryoid bodies, parts of which were seen to beat spontaneously in the same way as a normal heart muscle.

Cells from the beating areas were first tested on pacemaker heart tissue taken from rats. Within 24 hours of grafting the myocytes on to the tissue, both sets of cells were contracting with a synchronous rhythm.

Next, the cells were injected into the hearts of pigs which had had surgery to produce an abnormally slow heart rate.

The transplanted human cells acted like a biological version of an electronic pacemaker, generating a new rhythm in the hearts of 11 out of 13 animals.

In five pigs, the activity was limited to isolated beats or short runs. But in the remaining six, the hearts developed a "regular, sustained and haemodynamically stable rhythm", the scientists reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The team, led by Dr Lior Gepstein, from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, wrote: "These results suggest the potential utility of these cells to serve as a biological pacemaker and for cardiac regenerative medicine in general."

The scientists said pacemaker cells could theoretically be made in unlimited numbers, and could easily be engineered to give them different functions.

That could offer relief for hundreds of thousands of people around the world who now use artificial pacemakers to regulate the beating of their heart because the normal cells that generate the rhythm work irregularly, or they have a break in the cell system of the heart used to spread the natural pacemaking nerve signal.

Artificial pacemakers can bring a host of problems along with their life-saving capability. The electronic systems work by giving the heart muscle a regular electrical stimulus to make it beat. But mobile phones and other equipment can interfere with their function.

KEEPING PACE

* 1950: First external pacemaker designed and built by Canadian electrical engineer John Hopps; it used a lead attached at one end to the heart and the other to a mains supply.

* 1958: First implantation into a human, Arne Larsson, by a Swedish team. The device, the size of a hockey puck, failed after three hours; a second then lasted for two days. Mr Larsson survived until December 2001 after having received 22 different pacemakers. * 1960: First totally implantable pacemaker: the first patient died of other ailments nine months later. The battery could last up to 18 months.

* 1965: New techniques allowed pacemakers to be installed by sliding a wire along a vein without opening the chest cavity - and thus without general anaesthetic

* 1975: Lithium-iodine batteries meant pacemakers could last up to 10 years.

* 1980s: New "rate responsive" versions could detect exertion and speed up or slow the heart.

* 1990s: New systems stored data about the heart's behaviour to be downloaded by the patient's cardiologist.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste