January 6, 2003

The heart tissue created could be used as a model to check how medicines affect the heart. Researchers in Haifa Technion together with the Rambam Hospital’s medical research center have succeeded in creating heart tissues from fetal stem cells.

Other researchers have produced heart tissue in the past, but the head of the research team Dr. Lior Gepstein of Haifa Technion’s Rappaport Institute said the significance of this research is that “we have used technology in the sorting of fetal stem cells for heart tissue together with an innovative system of electronic observation that enables us to see the cell activity on a microscopic level.”

These cells can develop into any kind of cell found in the body. In the first stage of the research, the researchers allowed the fetal stem cells to develop into different kinds of cells. They then took out those cells that would develop into heart tissue. The heart tissue lacks some of the characteristics of natural heart tissue, but the research shows that the tissue pulsed like a heart.

“Tissue like this could be used as a model to check how medicines affect the heart,” said Gepstein. “Today, we have no laboratory model for the human heart, and we have no way of knowing exactly what effect medicines will have on the heart until we try them on a human,” Gepstein added.

The tissue that the researchers have created is still not usable as a model to test the affect of medicines on the heart, but according to Gepstein, this is “a first and important step.”

In August 2001, Gepstein announced that his team for the first time grew human heart cells in a lab from embryonic stem cells. These precursor cells can be regarded as the body’s first building blocks, having the amazing ability to transform themselves into virtually every cell type. This ability enables the embryo to grow from a round ball made from a handful of cells into a fully formed body.

In a related development, Prof. Yair Reisner of the Weizman Institute’s Immunology Department has been awarded the Daniele Chianelli Prize commemorating his work of over 20 years on incompatible stem cell transplantation.
Bone marrow or stem cell transplantation is a crucial part of the therapeutic strategy aimed at saving the lives of people with leukemia, malignant lymphoma, multiple myeloma and congenital blood disorders, such as halassemia or severe immune deficiencies.

Reisner’s research, conducted in collaboration with a team led by Prof. Massimo Martelli of Italy’s Perugia University has revolutionized transplantation therapy, enabling the transplant of partially matched stem cells in leukemia patients. Until recently, stem cell transplantations could only succeed if a full genetic match existed
between the donor and recipient. Patients having no donor among their siblings had to search the general population, but for roughly half of them a matched donor was found too late or not at all.

The new approach by Reisner and Martelli, known as incompatible or haploidentical stem cell transplant requires that only three of six immunological markers be matched. Such a match is always present between parents and children, and there is a 75% chance of finding it among siblings. If the search includes the extended family, more than 95% of patients can find a donor.
Today. Nearly 150 patients throughout Europe have been treated using this approach, yielding significant success rates. The transplant procedure is well tolerated even in patients that are at high risk due to toxicity, advanced age, and disease stage (at least 50% of patients were transplanted in relapse of a leukemia that was resistant to all drugs).

The Daniele Chianelli Prize is awarded by the Daniele Chianelli Committee for Life, an Italy-based foundation that promotes research to cure children suffering from tumors and leukemia.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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