A technique developed at the University of Washington to repair damaged hearts with stem cells is getting a $10 million boost from a little-known Seattle foundation.

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A technique developed at the University of Washington to repair damaged hearts with stem cells is getting a $10 million boost from a little-known Seattle foundation.

The grant from the Washington Research Foundation will allow scientists to answer several key questions and start the first human trials within a few years.

If the approach works as well in people as it has in animals, it could lead to new treatments for heart disease — the No. 1 killer in the United States and around the world.

“The potential to impact people’s lives is enormous,” said Dr. Chuck Murry, director of the UW’s Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine.

Over the past 15 years, Murry and his colleagues have shown that stem cells can regenerate damaged heart muscle in mice, guinea pigs and monkeys. That basic research was funded largely by the National Institutes of Health — but it can be tough to get federal funding for the final push to translate lab work into actual treatments.

“Many people call it the valley of death,” said Dr. Richard T. Lee, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “There are many good ideas that can’t cross that bridge, because they’re too far along to get NIH funding, but not far enough along to get business interested.”

Though few people outside of tech circles may have heard of the Washington Research Foundation, it’s well positioned to help bridge that gap, said its president and CEO, Ronald Howell.

Founded in 1981 to help commercialize technology developed at the state’s research universities, the nonprofit foundation also taps the income it earns from investments and licensing agreements to fund startup companies and provide research grants.

Until recently, those grants were modest. But last year, the foundation pledged more than $31 million to UW programs focused on clean energy, neuroengineering, protein design and big-data science. The new stem-cell grant is the single largest gift in the foundation’s history.

“We went big on this one because they need the money, and because it’s a big idea with a potentially big impact,” Howell said. “It’s something worth taking a risk on.”

The grant doesn’t give the foundation rights to technology or treatments developed by the researchers. But if the stem-cell process proves viable, the foundation will consider helping commercialize it, Howell said.

The scientists have a lot of work to do before they reach that point, Murry cautioned.

The UW team is focused on fixing damage caused by heart attacks.

“The heart is about the worst organ in the body at repairing itself,” Murry explained. Muscle lost to a heart attack is replaced by scar tissue, leaving patients with diminished cardiac capacity and at a high risk of heart failure.

Several research teams around the country are exploring different ways of harnessing stem cells — which have the ability to form many types of specialized cells — to mend broken hearts. The UW group works with a federally approved line of human embryonic stem cells.

In monkeys, they found that 10 percent of stem cells injected into the animals’ hearts grew and integrated into healthy tissue, forming neural connections and spurring growth of blood vessels.

But the scientists still ­haven’t determined whether that regrowth was sufficient to actually improve the monkeys’ heart function. All of the animals experienced episodes of arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, which could be a major concern in human patients. Tissue rejection is also a potentially serious problem.

“The questions about rhythm disorders and safety and who should and could benefit from this kind of therapy are big questions,” said Lee, who is not involved in the UW research. “But if the correct patients could be selected, then this therapy could be game changing.”

Murry estimates he and his team will spend the next three years trying to answer those outstanding questions and develop a method to mass-produce the stem cells they need.

If all goes well, the first human trials will start in 2019, and be based in the Puget Sound area. The first few patients will probably be people who have recently suffered heart attacks but haven’t yet formed scar tissue, and the initial tests will be designed mainly to find out if the stem-cell injections are safe, Murry explained.