How stem cells are helping to mend broken hearts
Lisa Salmon catches up with a cardiologist, who explains how a patient's own stem cells can repair damage from heart disease and heart failure
In recent years, it's become apparent that stem cells will be a key ingredient of future medical treatments. And nowhere is the use of these 'building block cells' more important than through their amazing ability to repair the heart.
The Heart Cells Foundation charity (heartcellsfoundation.com) is funding pioneering research into potentially lifesaving treatment using a patient's own stem cells as a natural repair system to treat heart problems, including heart disease, heart failure and cardiomyopathy. Trials show the stem cells may be able to restore damaged heart tissue, and the treatment is being offered to selected heart failure patients at the Heart Cells Foundation-funded Compassionate Unit at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. It's the first treatment of its kind in Europe.
Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation (bhf.org.uk), says: "Our hearts have very limited ability to repair themselves following damage from heart attacks and other conditions. This can lead to heart failure, an incurable condition with a worse survival rate than many cancers.
"Stem cells hold immense promise in helping repair damaged hearts, and there have been some encouraging results from a number of studies in patients treated with such cells."
And consultant cardiologist Professor Anthony Mathur, principal investigator on the Heart Cells Foundation's stem cell trials at St Bart's Hospital, adds: "This is a truly exciting field from the perspective of patients healing themselves with their own cells. Clinical trials have helped our understanding of how stem cells may be isolated and then injected into the heart, to promote healing, and we've been fortunate in our own trials to see so many patients with heart disease report improvement in their symptoms, having previously been told no more could be done.
"With more than one million people suffering with heart disease and failure in the UK, the need for treatment in this field has never been greater. As the clinical trial was so successful, we have now been able to launch The Compassionate Treatment Programme at St Bartholomew's Hospital, which is the first of its kind in the UK, and will enable us to treat patients suffering from heart disease on compassionate grounds."
Professor Mathur explains more about stem cells and how they could help mend broken hearts ...
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What are stem cells?
"Stem cells have a unique ability to transform into any type of cell within the human body, making them an exciting and revolutionary treatment option for a variety of different conditions."
Are stem cells donated or do patients use their own?
"The therapy used in the trials and the Compassionate Unit utilises the patient's own stem cells to repair the heart. Stem cells are extracted from a patient's bone marrow and injected into the damaged area of their heart."
What heart conditions can stem cells treat?
"The programme based at the Barts Heart Centre has focused on the use of autologous stem cell therapy (patient's own cells) and we have conducted four clinical trials over the last 15 years, to understand what role stem cell therapy has in treating heart disease. Our results have identified individuals with dilated cardiomyopathy and ischaemic heart disease achieve the most benefit from stem cell therapy."
How do stem cells help?
"In the specific case of heart failure, stem cells initiate a repair process within the heart which improves heart function and also patient symptoms, resulting in an improved quality of life. It's the same process of cardiac repair for heart disease and cardiomyopathy. They are still likely to be part of a reparative process. This treatment is no longer just in the laboratory, it's improving the lives of patients all over the UK."
What research has been completed?
"In the programme's last clinical trial, patients with heart disease were treated using stem cell therapy and analysed against a placebo group. Results proved the patients' hearts had started to pump more efficiently, and patients also reported an overall improved physiological and psychological state, enabling them to return to a lifestyle nearer to normal."
What's the next step for heart stem cell research?
"We are now raising funds (approximately £8m) to conduct a larger Phase III trial to consolidate these findings. If successful, the final trial will provide further evidence to the NHS to consider adopting this therapy as standard care. Currently, until the Phase III trials are complete, we have the compassionate programme only. The future timing depends on funding the Phase III trials, which have been planned and are ready to go."
Can someone with a heart problem get stem cell treatment at the moment?
"Stem cell therapy isn't currently available within the NHS. However, the Compassionate Unit at St Bartholomew's allows us to treat patients from across the UK suffering with heart failure due to ischaemic heart disease of dilated cardiomyopathy, who have no further treatment options available to them. The Compassionate Unit is happy to receive enquiries from patients, GPs, cardiologists and healthcare professionals."