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Doctor Developing "Supercell" for Heart Treatment

By Tenille Bonoguore, The Globe and Mail, January 3, 2008

Terry Yau is a kind and thoughtful man. Despite being friendly and soft-spoken, many people avoid him if they can, and in some cases fear him. Yau is a heart surgeon, and his days often involve him giving an explanation to a patient: informing them that there is nothing else doctors can do. 99 percent of potential transplant recipients don't receive an organ due to the lack of donors. Complications eliminate other patients from surgery consideration.

"It's a miserable life," Dr. Yau said. "Instead of living, they're just waiting to die. That's the thing that I hate the most."

So Dr. Yau is finding new ways to help.

He is working on creating “supercells”. Capable of making a full conversion from a heart-like stem cell into a regular heart cell, these cells could be injected into a damaged heart area. His current work involves turning bone-marrow stem cells into preliminary heart cells at the Peter Munk Cardiac Center.

"Ultimately, the idea would be to rebuild a completely normal heart," Dr. Yau says.

Even though other researcher often regarded their early work as crazy, Toronto researchers have long been interested in stem cells.

The process of improving the heart's pumping function by transplanting cells instead of a whole heart was demonstrated by researchers at the University of Toronto and Toronto General Research Institute in 1996. Modified cells were used to boost blood flow in a separate finding in 2001. Criticism changed to acceptance, as the facts surrounding the research became undeniable.

Late last year, Dr. Yau announced a new advance: The genetically modified supercells work in rats. The cells will be tested in pigs this year. If that works, the door for human trials will be wide open.

In order to gain better recovery rates for patients, Dr. Yau is hoping to combine two current therapies to bridge the gap until the supercell treatments are ready. With the use of system currently used in the United States, a laser would punch holes in the heart muscle, and then unmodified stem cells would be transplanted into the prepared zone. Dr. Yau is aiming to start trials involving the genetically modified supercells later this year if the combination therapy is approved by Health Canada.

Heart failure strikes 500,000 North Americans each year, Dr. Yau hopes to change the current reality of the condition through his work.

"You can't reverse [a heart attack] no matter how many bypasses you put into them," he says. "Heart attacks are always a permanent thing."

By making hearts repairable, Dr. Yau wants to change reality with these new approaches.

"[A patient] may not feel like she's 20 years old again, but she'll be able to go walking with her family, go shopping and live better," Dr. Yau says. "You or I don't need a super heart. All we need is a normal heart that doesn't get worse."


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