By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Heart failure may be sure cured using stem cell therapy claim researchers. In a breakthrough study 16 heart failure patients given stem cells taken from their own bodies showed dramatic and lasting improvement.
Researcher Dr. Roberto Bolli, director of cardiology at the University of Louisville in Kentucky adds that although this was a small scale study if the finding is confirmed in additional studies, “It could offer an entirely new option and a potential cure for patients who are now dying from heart failure.”
Dr. John H. Loughran, a co author of the study said, “The improvement we have seen in patients is quite encouraging… Michael Jones, our first patient, could barely walk 30 feet [before treatment]… I saw him this morning. He says he plays basketball with his granddaughter, works on his farm, and gets on the treadmill for 30 minutes three times a week. It is stories like that that makes these results really encouraging.”
The study appears in The Lancet and was presented at an American Heart Association meeting in Orlando, Fla. The team of researchers harvested stem cells from the patients' hearts during bypass surgery at Jewish Hospital in Louisville. All of the patients had severe heart failure, as shown by measurements of how much blood the heart's main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, was able to “eject” or pump out with each contraction. The patients all had a left ventricle ejection fraction (LVEF) of 40 percent or lower. An ejection fraction of 50 percent or higher is considered normal.
The stem cells were purified and allowed to grow in number, and then re-infused into the regions of the patients' hearts that had been scarred by their heart attacks. Four months after the re-infusion, the LVEF of the patients who had gotten the stem cells rose from 30.3 percent to 38.5 percent. One year after re-infusion, eight of the patients showed even more dramatic improvement.
Further MRI scans of the patients' hearts show that the area of scarring had fallen significantly in those who had gotten the stem cell treatment. That finding seems to disprove the long-held belief that once scarring occurs, the heart tissue is forever dead.
“The results are striking,” Bolli said in the statement. “While we do not yet know why the improvement occurs, we have no doubt now that ejection fraction increased and scarring decreased. If these results hold up in future studies, I believe this could be the biggest revolution in cardiovascular medicine in my lifetime.”
However not all are equally enthusiastic. “This is positive, but the crucial next steps are to see whether this improvement is confirmed in the final completed trial, and to understand whether the cells are actually replacing damaged heart cells or are secreting molecules that are helping to heal the heart,” Dr. Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, told the BBC. BHF warns that there is uncertainty about how stem cell therapy works and have warned heart patients against seeking stem cell therapy privately, possibly from providers overseas.
Denis Buxton, who oversees stem cell research at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, calls the new studies “a paradigm shift, harnessing the heart's own regenerative processes.” But he says he would like to see more head-to-head comparisons to determine which type of cells are most beneficial. Dr. Bolli said a follow-up study is in the works.