For the first time, scientists have managed to turn heart attack patients' skin cells into healthy beating heart cells in the lab.
Previously, the technique had only been successful using skin cells from young and healthy people. This research, published in the European Heart Journal, marks the first time it has worked for skin cells from elderly patients and those with heart disease.
Professor Lior Gepstein, of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, who led the research explains that the beating cells are 'healthy and young - the equivalent to the stage of his heart cells when he was just born'.
The ability to use heart failure patients' own, reprogrammed cells would theoretically stop them being rejected by their immune systems.
The researchers took skin cells from two elderly male heart failure patients and reprogrammed them by delivering three genes to the cell's nucleus along with a small molecule called valproic acid. The resulting cells are called human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), which have the ability to become any cell type in the body.
In this case, the scientists transformed them into heart muscle cells, which were grown with healthy cardiac tissue. After 24 hours the tissues started beating together in a Petri dish, 'like a tiny microscopic cardiac tissue comprised of approximately 1000 cells in each beating area', according to Professor Gepstein.
Lastly, the engineered tissue was transplanted into healthy rat hearts and the researchers saw that the grafted tissue was establishing connections with the host tissue.
However, much more extensive research is required before this technology is seen in the clinic.
Dr Marrick Kukin, director of the Heart Failure Program at St Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, who was not involved in the study told ABC news: 'It is very exciting and very interesting, but we are far away from taking this to patients'.
He added that the study only involved two patients, and that the cells were transplanted into healthy rat hearts with no signs of heart failure, asking: 'Will it work in heart muscle that's dead?'.
There are still a number of major experiments that need to take place before testing out this therapy in humans, Kukin added, including studies on mammals and in animals whose hearts have been damaged.
Dr Shephal Doshi, director of electrophysiology and pacing at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, USA, who was not involved in the study told the LA times: 'What we produce in an animal model or in a Petri dish is hardly what happens in a human. This is a first step. It will take five, ten, 15, maybe 20 years to reach fruition at the soonest'.