The heart is a muscle that relies on a steady flow of oxygen-rich blood through its chambers to nourish it and to allow it to keep pumping as it should. When blockages occur in the arteries that deliver blood to the heart and blood flow is interrupted, the result is a heart attack. The areas of the heart fed by the affected artery then begin to die and scar tissues forms there contributing over time to heart disease and heart failure because the damaged portions become unable to pump blood efficiently.
The patients suffering from these conditions customarily face a lifetime of medications and other treatments designed to prevent another heart attack and to help the heart work more efficiently even though it is damaged. But the ultimate key to treating heart disease and heart failure is finding a way to undo the damage that has been done. And studies conducted over the past several years have revealed the potential for a new treatment using adult stem cells that will do precisely that.
Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells in our bodies that can morph into various specialized cell types such as skin, muscle or bone. In adults, they are found in bone marrow, skeletal muscles, the liver and other areas of our bodies where they lie dormant until they are activated by disease or injury. When disease or injury is present, they begin dividing and differentiating to try to repair the affected areas of the body. Because stem cells have this potential to grow into a variety of other cell types, it is possible for them to grow into heart cells that could repair and regenerate damaged heart tissue.
Several different approaches are being used to repair a damaged heart muscle with stem cells. The stem cells, which are most often taken from bone marrow, may be inserted into the heart using a catheter where, once in place, they begin to help regenerate damaged tissue. In other cases, the stem cells are infused into one of the coronary arteries (one of two major arteries that supply the heart) to spark repair activity. When these methods present too many challenges, researchers may also attempt to promote repair inside the heart itself by reprogramming the structural cells of the heart to become cardiac muscle cells (known as cardiomyocytes).
As with any treatment or therapy, injecting stem cells into the heart can fail or cause side effects. If the stem cells are taken from an unrelated donor, the body’s immune system may reject them. And if the injected cells fail to communicate properly with the heart’s existing cells, they can sometimes produce abnormal heart rhythms. But overall, cell failures and side effects have been fairly minimal in the studies that have been performed to date. This encourages researchers to move forward in refining the treatments and carrying out the clinical trials that will determine long-term effects and identify the true role of stem cell therapy in treating heart disease and heart failure.
Some studies are being evaluated in controlled laboratories while other research is occurring within clinical trials; however, both are in their early stages. As of now, stem cell therapy is available only to those patients who are accepted into and participate in a research trial.
If you have had a heart attack or have been diagnosed with heart disease, and you have interest in participating in one of these clinical trials, you can visit www.clinicaltrials.gov and search for any that might be underway or planned in your area. Once on the website, use the words “stem cells, heart, and the name of your city” to find the information you need.
When you participate in a study performed at a reputable medical center, you will be ensured of getting state of the art care even if you are in the placebo arm of the study (meaning that you’re getting an inactive therapy instead of a real treatment).
To learn more about research related to repairing the heart with stem cells, log on to vascularhealthclinics.org.