Transplanted hearts incorporate muscle and blood-vessel cells from the organs recipient, researchers report in the Jan. 3 New England Journal of Medicine. The work suggests that the heart may be capable of regenerating its own tissue.
Researchers took tissue samples from eight transplanted hearts in men who had died. The hearts all had come from female donors. This sex difference enabled the scientists to readily distinguish donor heart cells from host cells, since male cells contain a Y chromosome and female cells dont. Between 7 and 10 percent of muscle and blood-vessel cells sampled in the donor hearts came from the male recipients.
Moreover, these cells were growing and replicating, says study coauthor Piero Anversa of New York Medical College in Valhalla.
All eight hearts also had many primitive cells adorned with surface molecules found primarily on stem cells–which differentiate into a specific cell type. However, Anversa couldnt determine whether the unusual cells he found were indeed stem cells. The researchers did discover that roughly one in six had a Y chromosome.
Curiously, the researchers also detected such primitive cells in the hearts of a separate group of people who died with their original hearts. However, in the transplanted hearts, the researchers found four times as many primitive cells displaying a key growth molecule as the original hearts did.
The origin of the primitive cells in hearts is unclear, Anversa says. Whether the new muscle and blood-vessel cells in the transplanted hearts arose from similar primitive cells is also unknown, says Roberto Bolli of the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Some organs are known to rebuild themselves, but not the human heart (SN: 9/1/01, p. 143: Healing the heart from within). Anversa says, The fact that we identified [primitive] cells is a clear indication that the heart may have the potential to heal itself.
Host cells that make their way to a transplant often mean trouble. For example, Bolli says, immune cells often orchestrate damage in transplants. The new study is the first indication that host cells might help a transplanted heart, he says.