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Heart Cells Made From Stem Cells Speed Up Research On Rare Disease

To study a disease, scientists like to look at cells from the diseased organ. But those cells aren't usually very easy for scientists to get their hands on.

That's because patients are generally reluctant to part with their brain or heart cells, diseased or not, while they're still using them. Dead cells are easier to procure, but they tend to be less interesting than their living counterparts.

A way around the problem is something called an induced pluripotent stem cell, or iPS. These are ordinary skin cells -- something patients are willing to donate -- that are transformed into cells that can do two wonderful things: they can grow indefinitely in the lab, and they can be coaxed into becoming any type of cell in the body.

Now scientists at the in Haifa, Israel have succeeded in using iPS cells to grow a collection of heart cells. What's particularly special about these cells is that they came from a patient with one of the inherited forms of long QT syndrome. And they can be used to test new treatments for the disease.

Long QT syndrome speeds up heartbeats, and can cause fainting. It gets its name from the abnormal electrical signals the heart gives off -- signals that be seen in a patient's EKG.

For unknown reasons, people with long QT syndrome can go without symptoms for years, and then suddenly drop dead from cardiac arrest. The Food and Drug Administration has warned that some heart medications may exacerbate it.

As researchers report in the journal Nature, the new iPS-derived heart cells developed in the lab show the same electrical irregularities of QT syndrome as the intact heart does, which means they can be good models for new drugs.

The next step will be to see if scientists can find drugs that will correct the irregularities in the cells before trying the drugs out on humans suffering from it. The scientists hope their stem cell technique will also be useful for testing drugs for individual patients with other diseases in the future.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.