Scientists have created blood vessels in mice using human stems cells, leading to potential new treatments for cardiovascular disease, according to research published in PNAS Early Edition.

The researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) extracted vascular precursor cells derived from human-induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) – reprogrammed adult cells similar to embryonic stem cells – from one group of healthy adults, and from another group with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

The iPSCs were then implanted onto the surface of the brains of mice.

Results showed that within two weeks, the implanted cells had formed networks of blood-perfused vessels that functioned as well as the adjacent natural vessels, and lasted for 280 days.

The scientists also implanted the iPSCs in order to generate blood vessels under the skin of the mice. Though this procedure was successful, it required five times the amount of cells and the vessels were short-lived.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of disease in the US.

The ability to regenerate or repair blood vessels, as demonstrated in the study, could make a crucial difference in the treatment of cardiovascular disease and other conditions caused by blood vessel damage, such as vascular complications as a result of diabetes, researchers say.

Rakesh Jain, director of the Stelle Laboratory for Tumor Biology at MGH, says:

The discovery of ways to bring mature cells back to a ‘stem-like’ state that can differentiate into many different types of tissue has brought enormous potential to the field of cell-based regenerative medicine, but the challenge of deriving functional cells from these iPSCs still remains.”

The researchers also discovered that cells derived from the iPSCs in T1D patients had the ability to generate functional long-lasting blood vessels. However, the researchers add that the cells derived from the diabetes patients produced different levels of cell-generating potential, meaning further research would be needed in this area.

Co-lead author of the study, Rekha Samuel, says:

The potential applications of iPSC-generated blood vessels are broad – from repairing damaged vessels supplying the heart or brain to preventing the need to amputate limbs because of the vascular complication of diabetes.

But first we need to deal with such challenges as the variability of iPSC lines and the long-term safety issues involved in the use of these cells, which are being addressed by researchers around the world. We also need better ways of engineering the specific type of endothelial cell needed for specific organs and functions.”