Stem cell trial suggests damaged heart tissue can be regenerated

29th July 2016

People with heart disease may be able to benefit from stem cell treatment in the future, a new small study has suggested.

Stem cells are building blocks of basic tissue. As they grow they become more specialised and develop into specific types of tissue, for example bone cells, nerve cells or heart muscle cells.

Stem cells have already been used to prevent or treat diseases, such as leukaemia and lymphona.  But now a new study has suggested that heart tissue damaged by a heart attack can be regenerated through a stem cell treatment injected into the heart during surgery.

The study, published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Translational Research, followed 11 patients who, during bypass surgery, had stem cells injected into their hearts near the site of tissue scars caused by heart attacks.

The trial reported a 40% reduction in the size of scarred tissue after two years. The scarring was previously thought to be permanent and irreversible.

At the time of treatment, the patients were suffering from advanced heart failure and were expected to have a high mortality rate. But, 36 months after receiving the stem cell treatment, they were all still alive, and none had had a further event such as a heart attack or stroke, or had any re admission to hospital for heart-related reasons.

The researchers reported that two years after having the stem cell treatment volunteers also had a 30% improvement in heart function and a 70% improvement in quality of life, as judged by a special heart failure scoring system.

“It was a big surprise to find the area of scar in the damaged heart got smaller,” said Professor Stephen Westaby from John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, who undertook the research at a hospital in Greece.

Ajan Reginald, the founder of the Celixir company that produces the treatment, said:  “It’s an early study and it’s difficult to make large-scale predictions based on small studies. But even in a small study you don’t expect to see results this dramatic.”

It is hoped that one day stem cell treatment may also help people with other heart diseases, such as cardiomyopathy.