Regrowing Damaged Organs no Longer Stuff of Science Fiction

timeismuscleI have only one regret from my heart attack experience in 2011, and that is that I waited two days from the onset of symptoms to seek treatment. Aside from the fact that I very likely could have died during those 48 hours, the time I waited very likely caused more damage to my heart than if I had gone to the hospital right away. In the heart attack business, time is muscle.

It’s a sobering experience to hear your cardiologist say that part of your heart is dead, but that’s exactly what happens to your heart when oxygen is cut off. In my case, I lost about 15 percent of my heart muscle in the area at the lower left ventricle known as the apex. Because of this dead muscle, I have what the doctor calls left ventricular hypokinesis. Basically, it means my heart doesn’t contract as much as most people’s hearts resulting in a lower ejection fraction.

This means my heart doesn’t pump out as much blood as a normal heart, which is no big deal until it gets too low (an ejection fraction of 50 percent or lower is considered reduced) and if it gets down below 40 or so it means you are in heart failure. At the time of my heart attack my ejection fraction was around 35-40, but today it’s in the 55-60 range which is at the low end of normal. Lucky me.

Every cardiologist I’ve seen, and everything I’ve read, says heart muscle damage is permanent. But as college football broadcaster Lee Corso says — not so fast my friends!

Medical science is progressing at a breakneck speed. Just think about coronary stents for example. It seems like they’ve been around forever, but the first one was inserted into a human in 1986 (just 32 years ago). If I had the very same heart attack in 1985 I’d be walking around with a 90 percent blocked left anterior (LAD) descending artery (also known as the widowmaker) instead of having three stents. Or more than likely I’d be dead.

Which brings me to that dead heart muscle. This week in the magazine Nature I read about a new procedure that will be done on three patients in Japan. Doctors at Osaka University will take thin sheets of tissue derived from cells and graft them onto diseased human hearts. The team expects that the tissue sheets can help to regenerate the organ’s muscle when it becomes damaged.

If this works as it has in lab animals, these doctors will in effect reverse thousands of years of medical orthodoxy. Time may be muscle, but science is more powerful than current knowledge.

This experiment is part of a field known as regenerative medicine. Rejuvenating or regrowing human tissue has limitless possibilities for medical science, and while the field is in its infancy it feels like every day we hear about a new breakthrough. Just a few years ago scientists grew a complete human bladder outside the body, and we’re not very far from the ability to grow more complex organs to use for transplantation. How long before scientists can grow a human heart that can be used to replace failing ones? The stuff of “science fiction” is no longer outside the realm of possibility.

I recently read Never Let Me Go by Nobel Prize winner Kazou Ishiguro. Spoiler alert: it’s about clones who are created to harvest replacement organs. But given the direction of real science, the dystopian world laid out by Ishiguro will not be needed!

This is a long way of stating that I am grateful for medical science. In fact, science is the closest thing I have to a religion. I put my faith in regenerative medicine, CRISPR, biotechnology, immunology, and everything else that involves the scientific method. My heroes are scientists, doctors, and inventors. They bring me peace of mind and hope for the future.

My heart damage is probably not severe enough to warrant stem cell therapy or regenerative cell sheets. But it’s nice to know if things get worse for me, or as science continues to progress, my heart could easily be fixed. Permanently.

I ♥ science!