Stem cells from newborns appear to have a much greater ability to restore heart function than adult stem cells, according to a new study from University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers who were looking for ways to mend children's broken hearts.

It was the first study to compare the regenerative abilities of the stem cells. And the lab and animal studies showed a three-fold ability of newborn cells to restore heart function.

The study is published in the September 11 issue of Circulation.

"The surprising finding is that the cells from neonates are extremely regenerative and perform better than adult stem cells," said the study's senor author Dr. Sunjay Kaushal, associate professor of surgery at Maryland and director of pediatric cardiac surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "We are extremely excited and hopeful that this new cell-based therapy can play an important role in the treatment of children with congenital heart disease, many of whom don't have other options."

For now, children with heart failure must rely on medications and surgery for structural repairs, and the prognosis is poor. Cell therapy could be used along or with other measures, Kaushal said in a statement.

The stem cells work because they can grow into tissue or organ-specific cells with a specific function.

Researchers took heart tissue during cardiac surgery from 43 neonates and 13 adults and expanded the cells in growth medium. Kaushal said it wasn't clear why the newborn cells worked better, but the doctor said it maybe because there are many more stem cells in a baby's heart than an adult's or they have more growth factors to trigger blood vessel development and preservation.

The research could lead to important therapies to treat the approximately 1 in 100 American children born with congenital heart disease, the researchers said.