Blood vessels built from skin cells help repair damaged hearts in mice

human heart
University of Illinois researchers testing a way to regenerate damaged heart tissue that uses skin cells to build blood vessels.

One of the primary goals of regenerative medicine is to find new ways of fighting heart disease, the leading cause of death around the world. Coaxing stem cells to become heart cells is one popular technique, but scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago believe they might have found an even better way to repair damaged hearts—by transforming skin cells into blood vessels.

The technique, described in the journal Circulation, involves taking mature skin cells and turning back the clock—in essence making them more like stem cells that have the ability to become any tissue in the body. They do that by exploiting a gene “transcription factor,” or protein, called SOX17. This transcription factor becomes elevated when descendants of stem cells called progenitor cells turn into blood vessels.

The research team tested the importance of SOX17 by boosting levels of the protein in human progenitor cells derived from skin cells. They observed that differentiation into blood vessels increased about five-fold, according to a press release.

Then they embedded the human progenitor cells into a gel and implanted it into mice that had sustained heart damage. The cells formed functioning human blood vessels, some of which linked up with existing mouse vessels and helped improve heart function.

RELATED: Stanford researchers produce 12 cell types from human stem cells in days

Research teams around the world are testing a variety of techniques for turning stem cells into functioning tissues and organs. Last year, for example, Stanford scientists showed they can rapidly isolate blood-forming and brain-forming stem cells and use gene expression patterns to coax them to become up to 12 cell types, including bone and heart muscle.

Some regenerative medicine companies working on cardiovascular applications have started to gain attention in the venture capital world. Among them is Humacyte, a company that has raised more than $150 million to develop a technique for turning smooth muscle cells into bioengineered blood vessels.

As for the technique being studied at UIC, lead scientist Jalees Rehman says the type of skin cells used could easily be collected via skin biopsy from patients who have sustained heart damage.

"This means that one could generate patient-specific blood vessels or red blood cells for any individual person," said Rehman, associate professor of medicine and pharmacology at UIC, in the release. He added that this type of treatment may reduce the risk of rejection, because the new blood vessels would have the same genetic makeup as the patient from whom the skin cells were taken.