Stem Cells Could Prevent Post-Heart Attack Damage
Cardiologist Says This Could be the Biggest Revolution in Cardiovascular Medicine of the Age
Dr. Roberto Bolli, left, and Dr. Sohail Ikram of the University of Louisville prepare to infuse patient Mike Jones with adult cardiac stem cells. Photo courtesy of the University of Louisville.It may be premature to give stem cell therapy credit for curing the number one killer in the United States—heart disease. However, medical researchers studying this novel treatment method may be on their way: for the first time ever, stem cells have been shown to ward off heart failure.
The results of a recent trial were published Monday in The Lancet and presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in Orlando, Fla., and show that cardiac stem cells may be able to regenerate other cells damaged by heart failure.
A research team working at the Jewish Hospital in Louisville, led by Dr. Roberto Bolli and Dr. Piero Anversa, harvested cardio-specific stem cells from 16 separate patients who had been diagnosed with heart failure following a heart attack. After being encouraged to grow in the lab, these stem cells were then reintroduced to the area of each individual patient’s heart that had been damaged.
The results showed that those 16 patients, on average, showed up to triple the improvement that a typical heart attack patient sees.
Mike Jones, the first patient to undergo the treatment, told ABC News that now he “can do more with my grandkids. I pitched softballs with my granddaughter for probably 15 minutes today,” Jones said. “I got a little bit winded at the end, but that's something that before the stem cells would have been just impossible."
What is so striking about this study is that it may have disproven a long-held belief in the medical world that once heart tissue has been scarred, it is irreparable. MRI studies on these 16 patients’ hearts showed that scarring decreased after the introduction of stem cells.
“If these results hold up in future studies, I believe this could be the biggest revolution in cardiovascular medicine in my lifetime," Dr. Bolli said in a University of Louisville press release.
This is the latest in a series of ongoing stem-cell related discoveries that have been developing in the past decade or so, and have really picked up steam in the last handful of years. Some of the highlights:
- May 2005: Researchers at U.C. Irvine use stem cells to partially restore the ability to walk in rats with paralyzed spines.
- October 2006: Scientists at Newcastle University in England create artificial liver cells using umbilical cord blood stem cells.
- March 2008: A study is published showing that knee cartilage can be regenerated using stem cells.
- June 2011: Scientists isolate stem cells from endangered animal species, which could potentially prevent extinction.
It has become fairly clear that stem cell therapy might be usefully applied in many areas of medicine and science. Among others, a list of potential stem cell cures might include:
- brain damage
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- spinal cord injury
- baldness and missing teeth
- heart damage
- vision problems
- Lou Gehrig’s disease
There is a fairly widespread and very vocal opposition to embryonic stem cell research and treatment. This opposition argues that using embryonic stem cells—cells derived form a fertilized human embryo—is unethical and tantamount to murdering a human life. This is due to the fact that, with current technology, it essentially requires that a human embryo be destroyed in the process, and the opposition believes that human life begins when a sperm cell fertilizes an egg cell. Those who argue for embryonic stem cell research would argue that a human embryo is no more a human than is single sperm cell, and that it is absolutely essential to pursue any potential curative effects of using embryonic stem cells.
After years of being blocked at every turn by the Bush administration, embryonic stem cell researchers have been given a little more leeway by the Obama White House. In 2009, for example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave clearance to the Geron Corporation to begin the first clinical trial of an embryonic stem cell therapy on humans. This trial will attempt to use embryonic stem cells to reverse spinal cord injury. In addition, numerous groups are attempting to find new ways of extracting or creating embryonic
This moral argument (summed up very unfairly and ineffectively above) is actually irrelevant when it comes to the recent Louisville study: this procedure harvests adult stem cells from the patient’s own cardiovascular system, and does not involve any embryonic stem cells whatsoever. Luckily, there never has been—and probably never will be—a ban on studies involving adult stem cells.
Regardless, the study does reinforce an urgent need to continue pursuing stem cell research—whether embryo-based or not—as a means to improve and save the lives of thousands.