Stem cells show organ promise
A Minnesota researcher who created a beating heart in the laboratory -- a medical first -- says stem cells can be used to generate new organs to repair the body.
For instance, a pig's kidney, which is similar to a human kidney, could be used to transplant a patient's cells and build a kidney to match the patient's body, says Dr. Doris Taylor.
Another possibility is to use the patient's kidneys to build "transplant scaffolds" to put cells in, she said.
Taylor discussed the potential for technology using stem cells to generate new organs in an interview during a recent visit to the North Hawaii Community Hospital.
The Big Island hospital has ties with the University of Minnesota, where Taylor directs the Center for Cardiovascular Repair and is Medtronic-Bakken professor of medicine and physiology.
Earl Bakken, inventor of the human heart pacemaker, is president emeritus of the North Hawaii Community Hospital and co-founder and director emeritus of Medtronic Inc., the world's leading medical technology company.
Six University of Minnesota students visit the Waimea hospital twice a year for three weeks at a time to study integrative medicine and alternative approaches to healing. One group was at the hospital during Taylor's visit.
Taylor said many processes for integrative healing and wellness approaches are tied in with the idea of stem cells and natural repair.
Dr. Kenneth Riff, executive director of the North Hawaii Community Hospital's Heart Brain Center, said the small rural hospital is not ready to take on leading stem cell research, but wants to make sure it has the latest thinking on changes in cardiology.
Taylor and her colleagues created a beating heart by stripping away the cells from rat hearts with detergents, then repopulating it with fresh heart cells.
She pointed out that many people in Hawaii are on dialysis waiting for kidney donations: "Our hope is over time the technology we've developed will let us begin to build options for those people."
Taylor said she believes most diseases and aging are a failure of stem cells, and the body's capacity to repair itself decreases with age.
She talks about the possibility of using the process developed in her laboratory to generate new hearts, kidneys or any organ that gets a blood supply by implanting the patient's cells into a donor organ.
"The other thing we're learning, even if we just have a transplant scaffold with stem cells in it, the body seems to know how to get the right cells into the scaffold to do what it needs to do," she said. "We think nature can do this a lot better than we can."
The work of Taylor and her associates was published in January in Nature Medicine.
"We're excited," she said. "We really want to change the world for people with disease."
Cardiac work earns honor
North Hawaii Community Hospital has won recognition for its efforts to reduce cardiovascular diseases on the Big Island.
It is one of only 33 hospitals in the nation ever to receive the American Heart Association's Get With the Guidelines -- Coronary Artery Disease Gold Award for performance achievement.
The award is based on the hospital's commitment to providing the highest standards of cardiac care and treatment of patients hospitalized with coronary artery disease.
The hospital established a Heart Brain Center in 2004 to focus on cardiovascular disease because the Big Island had the state's highest stroke and heart death rates.
Those numbers have been dropping to "to levels basically the same as the rest of the state," said Dr. Kenneth Riff, the center's executive director. "This award recognizes the sustained level of performance at the hospital, but the true measure of success is seeing our patients respond to the treatment."