Myocardial infarction is the leading cause of death among people in industrialized nations. Although the heart has some ability to regenerate after infarction, myocardial restoration is inadequate. Consequently, investigators are currently exploring the use of human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), skeletal myoblasts and adult bone marrow stem cells to limit infarct size. hESCs are pluripotent cells that can regenerate myocardium in infarcted hearts, attenuate heart remodeling and contribute to left ventricle (LV) systolic force development. Since hESCs can form heart teratomas, investigators are differentiating hESCs toward cardiac progenitor cells prior to transplantation into hearts. Large quantities of hESCs cardiac progenitor cells, however, must be generated, immune rejection must be prevented and grafts must survive over the long term to significantly improve myocardial performance. Transplanted autologous skeletal myoblasts can survive in infarcted myocardium in small numbers, proliferate, differentiate into skeletal myofibers and increase the LV ejection fraction. These cells, however, do not form electromechanical connections with host cardiomyocytes. Consequently, electrical re-entry can occur and cause cardiac arrhythmias. Autologous bone marrow mononuclear cells contain hematopoietic and mesenchymal stem cells. In several meta-analyses, patients with coronary disease who received autologous bone marrow cells by intracoronary injection show significant 3.7% (range: 1.9-5.4%) increases in LV ejection fraction, decreases in LV end-systolic volume of -4.8 ml (range: -1.4 to -8.2 ml) and reductions in infarct size of 5.5% (-1.9 to -9.1%), without experiencing arrhythmias. Bone marrow cells appear to release biologically active factors that limit myocardial damage. Unfortunately, bone marrow cells from patients with chronic diseases propagate poorly and can die prematurely. Substantial challenges must be addressed and resolved to advance the use of stem cells in cardiac repair including identifying the optimal stem cell(s) that permit transplantation without requirements for host immune suppression; timing of stem cell transplantation that maximizes chemoattraction of stem cells to infarcts; and determining the optimal technique for injecting stem cells for cardiac repair. Techniques must be developed to enhance survival and propagation of stem cells in the myocardium. These studies will require close cooperation and interaction of scientists and clinicians. Cell-based cardiac repair in the 21st century will offer new hope for millions of patients worldwide with myocardial infarctions who, otherwise, would suffer from the relentless progression of heart disease to heart failure and death.