Erasing the need for heart transplants

U-M doctors are exploring ways to grow heart tissue for patients, from their own skin cells

Above: Heart tissue created from pluripotent stem cells pulse in a petri dish in Dr. Si’s research lab.

It may sound like a plot point from a sci-fi thriller, but turning skin cells into heart tissue is what Ming-Sing Si, MD, is doing in his research lab at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. And one day, it might eliminate the need for heart transplantation.

“Heart transplantation has its shortcomings — a shortage of organs, organ rejection and the side effects of the anti-rejection medications,” explains Dr. Si. “If we can create new components from a person’s own cells, we’re creating something personalized for that patient. We’ll be able to create what we need and avoid the organ rejection complications.”

Dr. Si and his collaborators specialize in regenerative medicine, a field that’s made remarkable strides in the last six to seven years.

Dr. Si and his team use human cells, such as a skin cell, that have been converted to something called a pluripotent stem cell. Pluripotent stem cells can be used much like embryonic stem cells, but without the ethical concerns.

ming-sing si pluripotent cell research“We take the pluripotent stem cells and expose them to a growth factor so that it assumes the specification of embryonic tissue that is developing into heart tissue,” says Dr. Si. “The growth factors are a chemical signal produced during development that dictates how that cell will develop. We are working with millions of cells at a time and bathe them in the growth factor in a petri dish.”

To create the blood vessels, Dr. Si and his collaborators embed native blood vessel tissue in a biological gel where it will start sprouting new blood vessels — just like planting a garden. This process is called angiogenesis.

“The goal is to combine the two — the heart muscle tissue and the blood vessels — to create heart components that can be implanted in a person, ultimately replacing heart transplantation,” says Dr. Si.

Although Dr. Si feels the strides being made in the lab today won’t be applicable to patients for a decade or so, each advance these researchers make brings us one step closer to creating an alternative to heart transplants.

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ming-sing siMing-Sing Si, MD, is a pediatric cardiac surgeon with the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital Congenital Heart Center. Dr. Si’s research efforts are motivated by his interest in using multidisciplinary approaches to ultimately improve the treatment and quality of life of patients with congenital and acquired cardiovascular disease.



best children's hospitalUniversity of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital is consistently ranked one of the best hospitals in the country. It was nationally ranked in all ten pediatric specialties in U.S. News Media Group’s “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals,” and among the 10 best children’s hospitals in the nation by Parents Magazine. In December 2011, the hospital opened our new 12-story, state-of-the-art facility offering cutting-edge specialty services for newborns, children and women.