Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. Whenever heart cells are damaged or lost, they cannot be replaced, and as a result, the victim’s condition irreversibly leads to a decline in heart function and ultimately death. The only known solution is by transplanting an entire heart, but the one year success rate is about 85% and the five year success rate is about 75%. Because there are no other known methods to deal with heart diseases, many scientists have been looking towards stem cells as an alternative source of heart cells that could potentially replace diseased or damaged tissue in hearts of disease patients.
Using stem cells to repair the heart was a potential alternative solution because stem cells have two unique characteristics: 1) self-renewal, producing more stem cells and 2) differentiate, becoming other, more specialized cells. However, the true problem those researchers faced before attempting to apply stem cells as an alternative solution to heart diseases was the identification of specific signals that directed the stem cells to become the desired cell type, the heart cells.
For the last eight years, researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, the Human BioMolecular Research Institute, and ChemRegen, Inc. have been searching for molecules that could convert stem cells into heart cells and have at last found one. While sifting through a large collection of drug-like chemicals, the team uncovered ITD-1, a molecule that can be used to generate unlimited numbers of new heart cells from stem cells.
ITD-1’s therapeutic potential is endless. “This particular molecule could be useful to enhance stem cell differentiation in a damaged heart,” explained Erik Willems, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher in Mercola’s lab and first author of the study. “At some point, it could become the basis for a new therapeutic drug for cardiovascular disease – one that would likely limit scar spreading in heart failure and promote new muscle formation.”
Mercola, Willems, and Cashman are now working with San Diego biotech company ChemRegen, Inc. to further develop ITD-1 into a drug that one day might be used to treat patients. If the researchers are successful, they can potentially save the lives of half a million people per year.