When a piece of muscle in a person's heart dies from lack of blood flow, it scars over and is lost. But a team of researchers from the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles has proven that those muscles may not necessarily be gone forever.
In a ground-breaking study that may change how heart attacks are treated, Dr. Eduardo Marban and his team used stem cells to re-grow damaged heart muscle. In the 17 patients who received the therapy, Marban measured an average 50 percent reduction in the size of the scar tissue
"One of the holy grails in medicine has been the use of medicine to achieve regeneration," Marban said. "Patients that were treated not only experienced shrinkage of their scars, but also new growth of their heart muscle, which is very exciting."
The stem cells were not derived from embryos, but instead were developed from the patients' own hearts. Marban's team inserted a catheter into the diseased hearts and took a small biopsy of muscle. In the laboratory, the tissue was manipulated into producing stem cells. After a few weeks of marinating in culture, researchers had enough stem cells to re-inject them into the patients' hearts. Over the course of a year, the stem cells took root in cardiac tissue, encouraging the heart to create new muscle and blood vessels. In other words, the heart actually began to mend itself.
"We've achieved what we have achieved using adult stem cells – in this case – actually specifically from a patient's own heart back into the same patient. There's no ethical issues with that – there's no destruction of embryos. There's no reason to worry about immune rejection."
While similar research has been done using stem cells from bone marrow, this is the first time that stem cells derived from a patient's own cardiac tissue have been used.
Marban believes this therapy could be broadly used in many of the 5 to 7 million Americans who suffer from heart disease every year. And he said the applications could go well beyond diseased hearts.