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Mitochondrial Transplant: Using Dying Organs to Restore Life

restoration of Dying cells

Success often results from being at the right place at the right time. Such was the case for two health scientists in Boston not long ago. One had been studying mitochondrial transplants in pigs while the other struggled to treat newborns who had heart attacks. Through a stroke of luck and genius, however, both partnered to offer new hope to patients through mitochondrial transplant treatments. But mitochondrial transplants may be only the beginning when it comes to preserving human life. These tiny “powerhouses” inside all our cells might hold the key not only in managing heart attacks but also in preserving youth and much more. This is a great example of how precision medicine is impacting our health in positive ways.

The Boston Mitochondrial Transplant Experience

Suffering a heart attack is bad, but it's not the end.
One of the newer weapons in the fight against heart attacks: Mitochondrial transplant.

According to a New York Times article, Dr. James McCully, a medical researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, had been studying heart attacks in pigs. After noticing that pigs’ mitochondria in oxygen-deprived heart cells appeared different after a heart attack, he had an idea. McCully took a small piece of the pigs’ muscle tissue and isolated mitochondria from its cells. He then transplanted the mitochondria into the damaged area of the pigs’ hearts. Remarkably, the transplanted mitochondria moved right into place and allowed the pigs’ heart to recover from the heart attacks.

Dr. Sitaram Emani, a pediatric heart surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, heard about McCully’s mitochondrial transplant findings. In dealing with small infants who have heart attacks, Emani wondered if mitochondrial transplants might improve the infants’ outcomes. The two got together and decided to see if mitochondrial transplants might work for these neonates. After suffering a heart attack, the infants received a mitochondrial transplant infusion containing 1 billion of their own healthy mitochondria.

Emani and McCully have since treated eleven infants with heart attacks in total. Before, two thirds of these infants eventually died after suffering a heart attack. Of those treated by Emani and McCully, two thirds are now surviving.

Other Research Evidence Regarding Mitochondrial Treatments

Mitochondrial research is not limited to pigs. UCLA’s Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology recently published a report regarding fruit flies and mitochondrial damage. The researchers noticed that as the fruit flies got older, their cells’ mitochondria would deteriorate. Rather than giving mitochondrial transplants to fruit flies, however, these scientists injected intracellular materials to remove the damaged mitochondria. As a result, the fruit flies receiving the treatments lived as much as 20 percent longer.

Rather than exploring mitochondrial transplants, other companies are investigating chemicals to improve mitochondrial function and cell metabolism. In an article previously reporting bold moves to combat aging, Elysium Health described its NAD-precursor vitamins. Mitochondria use NAD to produce energy and boost metabolism, but NAD slowly declines with aging. Vitamins, as well as treatments like mitochondrial transplants, may not only reduce heart attack damage but might also prolong youthfulness.

The Future of Mitochondrial Transplants for Heart Attacks

Mitochondrial transplants might help those who suffer heart attacks.
There are many treatments for heart attacks, but the newest one – mitochondrial transplant – shows definite promise.

The mitochondrial transplant experience in treating neonatal heart attacks is certainly promising. Getting enough participants for an actual study would be challenging since few infants would qualify. However, recruiting adult patients with heart attacks for a mitochondrial research study would be more feasible. In fact, medical centers are already planning controlled trials using mitochondrial transplants in coronary artery bypass grafting and/or valve surgery patients. Such patients, who are at high risk for heart attacks, would be ideal for a mitochondrial transplant study. If the evidence shows benefit, this could radically change heart attack treatment for many others.

Heart attacks are not the only area where mitochondrial transplants might be beneficial. Animal studies have also shown that lung and kidney cells deprived of oxygen also recover after mitochondrial transplants. Brain tissue similarly depends on a high number of mitochondria to fuel cognitive metabolism.

Therefore, mitochondrial transplants might also be useful for acute stroke patients. Mitochondrial transplants might provide future treatment options not only for heart attacks but brain attacks as well.

Mitochondrial Research—Interfaces with Precision Medicine

In addition to being the energy boosters for our bodies’ cells, mitochondria also contain their own set of DNA. Mitochondrial DNA differs from the DNA in the nucleus of our bodies’ cells, however. Little is currently known about mitochondrial DNA, but it has been linked to a number of inherited diseases. Given advances in genome sequencing and the rise of precision medicine, mitochondrial DNA sequencing might one day be possible as well. This could offer new directions in medical research and insights. The benefits of mitochondrial transplants today for heart attacks may be a stepping stone to other bold new discoveries.


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