Imagine a future where heart attack sufferers no longer have to live with the long-term aftermath of a heart attack – no impact to lifestyle due to damaged heart muscles – no more pills and medicines – no long lines waiting for a heart transplant that may, or may not, come. How could this be? Why, you’d simply receive an injection of stem cells and grow new heart muscles to replace the old, damaged heart.
Sounds like something out of science fiction, doesn’t it? And yet, science fiction generally has it roots in science. Treating heart disease with stems cells may well become a reality in the not so distant future. Research regarding ways to treat heart disease and heart damage through stem cells is currently ongoing in various clinical trials throughout the world (approximately 20 trials are being conducted worldwide with more than 1,000 participants). For example, in Brazil, researchers are conducting studies on treating refractory angina with a stem cell cocktail with great results. (See, Cell Transplants for a Healthier Heart at https://www.empowher.com/angina/content/cell-transplants-healthier-heart for the complete story.) With each success story, more studies are sure to follow.
With any new treatment, the two big questions are
*Is is safe?
*Does it work?
People want to know that the benefits outweigh the risks, if any, before embarking down a previously unexplored medical pathway. No one wants to be the first (or even the second) guinea pig!
One British professor, Michael Schneider (British Heart Foundation Professor, Imperial College London), is looking for a better way to use stem cells to treat cardiomyopathy and heart attack patients. According to Schneider, the results of current clinical trials indicate that stems cells are safe to use but that the results observed are just not producing enough improvement in the patients condition. The culprit in the dismal results, he believes, is in the type of stem cell used.
Schneider indicates that most of the research being conducted uses stem cells gleaned from the bone marrow. Stem cells can harvested from sources other than bone marrow such as the umbilical cord of a newborn baby or human embryos. In some instances, stem cells can be obtained directly from the patient and then be transplanted back. (This makes the patient both the donor and transplant recipient of the stem cells, as we saw in the Brazilian study.)
Current studies that produce the best results are not the ones using bone marrow stem cells but those using embryonic, induced pluripotent and heart-derived stem cells. Schneider and his team believe that the best results for heart patients will be obtained with stems cells that are obtained directly from the patient and that heart-derived cells are the way to go. (Makes sense – using heart cells to treat heart problems).
Scheider and his team have come up with a new way to way to
*identify which heart cells are stem cells
*identify whether or not the molecular structure of the cell will allow it to turn into heart muscle or blood vessel cells
*ensure that the stem cells don’t yet have any characteristics generally associated with heart cells
They are currently working on ways to extract these heart stem cells, turn them into heart muscle cells, and then purify them in such a way that they can be used in transplants to treat heart patients. If successful, and correct, this could eventually change the way heart patients are treated in the future.
It is worth noting that stem cell research has garnered much interest because researchers believe that they can be “trained” to grow into specific types of cells which could then be used to repair or even replaced cells which have been damaged due to diseases or accidents. However, the use of stem cells is not without controversy since stem cells can be harvested from embryos. Harvesting the stem cells from an embryo effectively destroys it which raises numerous ethic and moral questions.
Improving clinical use of stem cells to repair heart damage, Breakthrough Digest, 12 Jul 2010, http://www.breakthroughdigest.com/medical-news/improving-clinical-use-of-stem-cells-to-repair-heart-damage/
Stem Cells: What are they and what do they do?, The Mayo Clinic, 20 Mar 2010, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stem-cells/CA00081