A team of Simon Fraser University researchers has created beating heart cells they hope to develop into potentially life-saving treatment for heart disease.

The cells were crafted from skin and blood tissue in a lab by graduate doctoral students Elham Afshinmanesh and Sanam Shafaattalab, under the supervision of project leader Glen Tibbits.

SFU creates beating heart cells

Doctoral students Elham Afshinmanesh (left) and Sanam Shafaattalab prepare to view human heart cells they had a hand in creating. (Simon Fraser University)

Tibbits, the Canada research chair in molecular cardiac physiology, says his team is currently working with St. Paul's and Children's hospitals on developing treatment for severe irregular heartbeats â€” arrhythmias that can often be fatal.

But he says this type of research could ultimately be used to replace dead or damaged heart tissue in heart attack patients.

Tibbits says the heart cells are crafted by taking skin and blood cells from patients and turning them into stem cells using a technique pioneered in Japan.

"They have the capability of being stem cells, and can be directed along different lineages becoming nerve cells, pancreatic cells and in our case heart cells."

Technology could help heart attack victims

Tibbits says the stem cells, reprogrammed into beating heart cells, have the same genome as the patient from whom they were taken, which means they also exhibit the same kind of arrhythmia.

Beating heart cells in Petrie dish

Beating heart cells, visible only under a microscope, are collected in Petrie dishes in the Simon Fraser University molecular cardiac physiology lab. (Simon Fraser University)

This will allow the team to tailor therapies to individual arrhythmia patients. Tibbits expects that within the next few months the team will be able to begin testing treatments. 

While the team is focused on irregular heartbeats,Tibbits says other teams are using the same technique to explore potential treatments for heart attack patients.

Unlike normal heart cells, Tibbits says, the beating heart cells created in the lab can multiply. Regular heart cells do not replace themselves, which is why heart attacks can be debilitating even when they're not fatal.

"When you have a heart attack many cells die and are not replaced or are replaced by scar tissue," says Tibbits.

"The hope is we can use this to replace dead or damaged heart tissue. These cells also have an advantage over embryonic stem cells because they come from the patient, meaning they don't get rejected."