Yesterday I was at the pub, most sublime of settings for scientific debate, and had it put to me that within 10 – 20 years we would be able to grow hearts and other organs from stem cells and live forever. Imagine it – lung cancer? New lung please, hold the immunosuppressants (I find they shorten my lifespan.)
I have to say, I don’t see this happening for a long while. I think it’s theoretically possible, sure, (what isn’t?) but there is a lot of work that goes into making a heart. It’s more than just freshening up some DNA and letting it simmer in a test tube. There’s SIGNALS! It’s why we can’t grow embryos beyond a certain size in teh lab, ex utero.
Your hair follicles and your heart have the same DNA, right? But you don’t want to take some stem cells and plan to bake yourself a heart and then end up with a long lock of luscious blonde hair (unless you’re balding, in which case congrats.) It’s all about the signals! The right signal at the right time in the right concentration in crucial for development. A growing heart needs a firm hand and direction in life, they need to know which way is left and which way is up for a start! It’s generally bad to have a heart the wrong way round.
So what is the answer, dear readers? How then shall we live without fear of death? How can we mend a broken heart?
Option 1: Work with what you’ve got. Science Daily recently wrote that researchers “have devised a method to coax heart muscle cells into reentering the cell cycle, allowing the differentiated adult cells to divide and regenerate healthy heart tissue after a heart attack.” The growth factor involved has a suitably smart sounding name, neuregulin1, and the study was done in rats and mice.
Option 2: Pep up with stem cells. Now, this isn’t inserting a new heart, it’s just giving the heart you’ve got a little bit extra, a face-lift if you will. In the words of researcher Timothy Nelson, “Bioengineered fibroblasts acquired the capacity to repair and regenerate infarcted hearts.” Nifty!
Option 3: Get some hardware. An artificial heart is almost as piratey as a wooden leg, plus it looks cool.
Option 4: Give it a helping hand. Just add in a donor heart for a few years, and let your own heart put it’s proverbial feet up and take it easy for a while. In ten years time, it will be good as new! An amazing example about the regenerative power of the heart.
So take heart (sorry), the future may hold a solution for our broken organs. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
Oh – and my advice for a REAL broken heart? Chocolate and friends – eases the dopamine withdrawal.