Low-level lasers stimulate stem cells to reduce heart scarring

After a heart attack or stroke the heart cannot completely heal itself, leading to heart scarring, which can yield dangerously thin heart walls and a decreased ability to pump blood through the body. But a new treatment developed at Tel Aviv University uses laser-treated bone marrow stem cells to help restore heart function and health.

After a heart attack or stroke the heart cannot completely heal itself, leading to heart scarring, which can yield dangerously thin heart walls and a decreased ability to pump blood through the body. But a new treatment developed at Tel Aviv University (TAU; Tel Aviv, Israel) uses laser-treated bone marrow stem cells to help restore heart function and health.

Recently published in the journal Lasers in Surgery and Medicine, a noninvasive treatment developed by Prof. Uri Oron of the Department of Zoology at TAU's George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences combines low-level lasers and bone marrow stem cells—a process known as "shining"—to significantly reduce heart scarring after an ischemic event, in which the heart is injured by a lack of blood supply. When the laser is applied to these cells a few hours after a heart attack, scarring can be reduced by up to 80 percent. The method is ready for clinical trial.

Oron has long used low-level lasers to stimulate stem cells to encourage cell survival and the formation of blood vessels after a heart attack, and was inspired to test how laser treatments could also work to heal the heart. He and his fellow researchers tried different methods, including treating the heart directly with low-level lasers during surgery, and "shining" harvested stem cells before injecting them back into the body.

But in hoping for a simpler method, Oron discovered that after a low-level laser was "shined" into a person's bone marrow, the stem cells took to the bloodstream, moving through the body and responding to the heart's signals of distress and harm. Once in the heart, the stem cells used their healing qualities to reduce scarring and stimulate the growth of new arteries, leading to a healthier blood flow.

Oron performed the therapy on an animal model to determined the method's success. Following the flow of bone marrow stem cells through the use of a fluorescent marker, the researchers saw an increase in stem cell population within the heart, specifically in the injured regions of the heart. The test group that received the "shining" treatment showed a vastly higher concentration of cells in the injured organ than those who had not been treated with the lasers.

In the longer run, Oron sees this as a way to make cell therapy simpler. Without the need to remove the stem cells from the body, this treatment stimulates a whole variety of stem cells to help heal the body, making it more efficient than single-cell type treatments. This could prove to be beneficial to the repair of other human organs such as the kidney or the liver, he notes.

Although stem cells naturally heed the call to heal throughout the body, says Oron, their success tends to be limited without this laser treatment. But with treatment, the cells' effectiveness become much more highly enhanced.

"After we stimulate the cells with the laser and enhance their proliferation in the bone marrow, it's likely that more cells will migrate into the bloodstream. The cells that eventually reach the heart secrete growth factors to a higher extent, and new blood vessel formation is encouraged," says Oron.

Through these animal models, Oron's noninvasive procedure has been proven safer and quicker than other options. He says that his team, including TAU's Dr. Hana Tuby and Lidya Maltz, has also done a series of safety studies to rule out the possibility that the stimulation of the stem cells by laser could encourage the growth of abnormal tissues. Under the specific and low doses of energy applied in this technique, no such dangers were found.

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Posted by Lee Mather

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