In a major breakthrough which may offer new hope to millions of heart attack victims worldwide, scientists claim to have discovered that stem cells can repair damaged blood vessels in a cardiac patient.

A team at Bristol University has in fact devised a way of harvesting the stem cells and stimulating the growth of new arteries, the ‘Circulation’ journal reported.

A heart attack occurs when the coronary artery taking blood to the heart’s muscles becomes blocked or damaged. And, according to the scientists, injections of stem cells can one day be used to repair the arteries, both independently and to complement work done in bypass surgery.

In their research, the scientists used blood vessels left over from bypass operations to produce the stem cells.

During a bypass a section of blood vessel from a patient’s leg is cut out and grafted on to a diseased coronary artery. It is then used to divert blood around a blockage or narrow section to restore blood supply.

“The crucial point is that surgeons always cut out a longer piece of vein than they need, so there is always a leftover piece,” the ‘Daily Mail’ quoted Prof Paolo Madeddu, who led the research, as saying.

In their research, the scientists wanted to see if they could obtain adult stem cells from those leftovers and found, much to their surprise, that they could extract sizable amounts.

“We got a few thousand stem cells. That is not nearly enough for treatments. However, it provided us with a source from which we could get those cells to proliferate.

“We seeded the stem cells in special plates and were able to grow them until we got samples of 50 million to 60 million cells -- which was enough to use as treatments,” added Professor Madeddu.

Subsequent tests on mice found that these cells were able to stimulate new blood vessel growth.

Experts have welcomed the research.

“This very encouraging and important advance brings the possibility of cell therapy for damaged hearts one step closer,” said Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation.

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