Some animals have regenerative abilities. The zebrafish, for example, can regenerate its own heart, fins and even brain. Why is that important? Because humans can’t. Not yet, anyway. But the meticulous research coming out of the lab of Tim Kamp, MD, PhD, FACC, focusing on how to repair and even regenerate damaged heart muscle has many asking, ‘When can we get this?’

There are patients who have tremendous needs that we hope in the long term can be met by these new therapies.

“When someone has a heart attack and doesn’t get to the hospital quickly and that muscle dies, there really aren’t good ways to repair it. Then that patient is left with a scar on his or her heart. That’s one of the big motivations: how can we repair and regenerate that heart muscle.”

New way of thinking about stem cells

Through years of stem cell research, Kamp’s lab is exploring how that scar could be replaced with other cells, even cells from the patient’s body. Through a new process of creating stem cells, now all it takes is a simple biopsy of skin.

The new type of cells - called induced pluripotent stem cells - rely on years of research with embryonic stem cells. But because Kamp and his colleagues understand the processes that govern a stem cell’s development into regular cells in the body, they are able to reverse engineer developed cells, turning them back into stem cells that can then be repurposed into many types of cells.

“I could take a piece of your skin and turn it into heart cells that are genetically identical to you; they are your heart cells, but now I have them in a dish. They can potentially be used for therapy for you, or they can be used to test a new drug that’s in development. Will it work for you? Well now we can test it in a dish first.”

Need for therapy provides motivation

Heart disease is the number one cause of death world-wide now, and there is a great need to improve treatments for all different forms of heart disease.

“There are patients who have tremendous needs that we hope in the long term can be met by these new therapies. I get emails every week from patients asking if there’s a new treatment about a condition that’s affecting their heart, and there are some people in tough straights out there. They keep us in the lab, and they keep us thinking about ways to develop new treatments from what we learn,” says Kamp.

There’s a long road ahead, according to Kamp, and because of the complexities and the challenges of stem cell research, it’s a road no one lab can take. But there is an increasingly more confident air among some of the world’s experts on stem cell biology at UW-Madison. Kamp and his UW School of Medicine and Public Health cohort are eager in continuing their research, exploring ways to get over barriers and turn what they’ve learned in the lab into clinical reality.