WASHINGTON - After turning skin cells back into stem cells successfully, scientists now have proof that they can indeed form specialised cells making up heart muscle.

University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-M) School of Medicine and Public Health professor Tim Kamp and his research team showed that they were able to grow working heart-muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) from induced pluripotent stem cells, known as iPS cells.

The heart cells were originally reprogrammed from human skin cells by James Thomson and Junying Yu, two of Kamp’s co-authors on the study.

‘It’s an encouraging result because it shows that those cells will be useful for research and may someday be useful in therapy,’ said Kamp, who is also a cardiologist with UW Health.

‘If you have a heart failure patient who is in dire straits - and there are never enough donor hearts for transplantation, we may be able to make heart cells from the patient’s skin cells, and use them to repair heart muscle. That’s pretty exciting.’

It’s also a few more discoveries away. The researchers used a virus to insert four transcription factors into the genes of the skin cell, reprogramming it back to an embryo-like state.

Because the virus is taken up by the new cell, there is a possibility it eventually could cause cancer, so therapies from reprogrammed skin cells will likely have to wait until new methods are perfected.

Still, the iPS cardiomyocytes should prove immediately useful for research. And Kamp said the speed at which knowledge is progressing is very encouraging.

Jianhua Zhang, study co-author noted that it took 17 years, from when a mouse embryonic stem cells were first created in 1981, to 1998, when Thomson created the first human embryonic stem cells, said a UW-M release.

In contrast, the first mouse iPS stem cells were created in 2006, and Thomson and Yu published their paper in November 2007, announcing the creation of human iPS stem cells that began as a skin cells.

The study was published online Thursday in Circulation Research, a journal of the American Heart Association.