Scientists have found a way of growing new blood vessels inside the body.
They used cells derived from skin, that when injected into a damaged leg in massive numbers, moulded into the shape of a small blood vessel.
This improved blood supply to withered muscles, giving them a new lease of life.
Astonishingly, the whole process took just three to four weeks.
Many research teams are trying to build artificial arteries in the lab but this is the first time that scientists have succeeded in growing one inside the body using cells that began their life in skin.
The work was in mice but the breakthrough could lead to a jab that would spare diabetics with poor circulation the trauma of having a leg amputated.
Instead, a sliver of skin taken from the back of their arm or hand could be used to generate that would restore blood flow once injected into their body.
Half of all amputations are done on people with diabetes, with problems with circulation and nerve damage leading to around 100 patients losing legs, toes or feet each week.
The technique, developed at King’s College London, could also be used to repair the damage done by heart attacks.
Professor Qingbo Xu, who is funded by the British Heart Foundation, started by taking human skin cells.
Using a cocktail of genes and chemicals, he turned them into early-stage blood vessel cells, programmed to form blood vessels.
He then injected half a million of these cells into the hind leg of a mouse whose foot muscles had been damaged due to poor circulation.
These formed a small blood vessel that ferried blood to the damaged muscle, allowing it to repair itself, enabling the creature to put some weight on its foot, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.
The professor hopes that injected into the heart, the same cells could be used to heal damage done by heart attacks.
Some hospitals are already giving heart attacks patients jabs of cells but with limited success.
Professor Xu believes he has the edge because he can generate the required cells in large numbers.
His cells are also free of the cancer risk that dog some cell therapies.
Finally, the professor, who is still some years from testing his treatments on people for the first time, hopes make lab-grown arteries that could be given to babies born with heart defects.
Unlike the artificial blood vessels currently used, they would grow with the child, removing the need for repeat operations.
Dr Richard Elliott, of charity Diabetes UK, said: ‘Anything that might help to reduce the shocking number of diabetes-related amputations should not be overlooked, but the work showcased here is still at a very early stage.
‘Years of further study and testing will be necessary before we know if these cells can be translated into an advance in patient-specific regenerative medicine.’
He said that until then, the best way to reduce amputations is to ensure that all patients with diabetes are getting their feet checked regularly and are being referred to specialist cross disciplinary foot care teams if they have problems.
Dr Hélène Wilson, of the British Heart Foundation, said the speed at which the research team turned skin cells into early-stage blood vessel cells was particularly impressive.
She added: ‘This breakthrough is an exciting step forward in the field of regenerative medicine, but further studies and safety checks will need to be carried out before we know if it will help lead to new treatments for patients.
‘The discovery could help lead towards future therapies to repair hearts after they are damaged by a heart attack.
‘As well as playing a part in a possible future regenerative treatment, these cells might also be used in drug screening to find new treatments to tackle inherited diseases.’
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