Doctors and research staff from the National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS) will attempt to recreate functioning heart tissue from adult bone marrow stem cells. The project, which begun two years ago, involves taking stem cells from adult bone marrow and using it to construct ‘sheets’ of contracting heart tissue to transplant onto damaged parts of the heart.
A multi-disciplinary team from NHC as well as the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) worked together to create the ‘sheets’ of heart tissue. To create the ‘sheets’, NHC’s Research and Development (R & D) unit first differentiates adult bone marrow stem cells to heart-like cells. Scaffolding provided by NTU’s School of Materials Engineering are then used to develop these cells into three-dimensional tissue.
This project was started as there are many heart failure patients with no future transplant options besides heart transplant. There is a severe shortage of donor hearts for transplant in Singapore. There are about 500 new cases of heart failure diagnosed each year but only 28 heart transplants have been done over the past 10 years.

While the changes in regulation in the Human Organ Transplant Act have been very encouraging, to date the National Heart Centre has performed only two transplants since last year. Creating heart tissue to transplant onto damaged parts of the heart therefore may bridge these patients for a while till they receive a heart transplant.

Although the research is still in the preliminary stages, progress has been encouraging. The NHC research team has managed to direct adult bone marrow stem cells to heart-like cells using simple culture methods, which is different as previous studies have used potent chemicals to direct these differentiation. This is an important innovation since by using potent chemicals, this in itself may be damaging to the cells. NHC has filed a patent for this process.

NHC’s R & D Unit have also begun to test the survivability of these differentiated cells by direct targeted injection in a large animal model.

There are no ethical issues as the team uses adult bone marrow stem cells, as opposed to the usage of embryonic stem cells which is quite controversial. In addition, the project aims to transport these stem cells back to patients, which means that there is potentially no need for anti-rejection therapy.

The project is funded by various institutions such as the National Medical Research Council, the Singapore Biomedical Research Council as well as the Lee Foundation.