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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Scientists say there is another promising way of treating heart disease that would preserve that familiar...

(Soundbite of patting of on the heart)

INSKEEP: ...heartbeat. This approach involves using stem cells - cells that can, in theory, be coaxed into replacing heart cells damaged or destroyed by disease.

NPR's Joe Palca has a status report of the research in this field known as regenerative medicine.

JOE PALCA: Regenerating functioning heart cells has been the goal of medicine for more than a century. University of Washington scientists Michael Laflamme and Charles Murry put it this way: to achieve that goal they write, the heart has been stabbed, snipped, contused, cauterized, coagulated, frozen, injected with toxins, infected and infarcted, in species ranging from marine invertebrates to horses. You don't often get that kind of lovely writing like that in the journal Nature.

So has any of that stuff worked? Well, kind of. In mice it's possible to find stem cells that will turn into functioning, beating heart cells and those cells do go where they're needed, replacing cells that have been damaged. But the repairs are mostly modest, and as you may know, mice aren't humans. Their hearts are much smaller and they beat much faster. What works in mice could flop in people. There are creatures that can regenerate heart tissue without any help from smarty-pants human scientists. The zebra fish is one example. You can cut out about 20 percent of a zebra fish's heart, and the heart will grow back to normal.

Obviously, human hearts can't do that. But scientists now do believe that there are stem cells that regenerate human hearts; they just do it a glacial pace, not nearly fast enough to make repairs in the event of injury. Scientists are trying to identify these cardiac stem cells, and then figure how juice them up so they can repair damage caused by a heart attack.

Scientists are also trying to use a cocktail of chemicals to trick other kinds of stem cells that don't normally make heart cells to take on that role. But like mechanical pumps and artificial hearts, stem cell therapy is a high tech, high expense solution for dealing with heart diseases. Rather than wait for the day when medicine can replace or repair your damaged ticker, the painful truth is that today heart health is largely in your hands: eat sensibly, quit smoking, get some exercise, all that boring stuff. Not nearly as newsworthy as the latest medical breakthrough, but probably more relevant to your health.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

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