Stem Cells and Heart Disease: Promising New Developments?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and the treatment of heart disease is the subject of ongoing research. One very promising treatment that has been developed is the use of stem cells to treat heart disease. Adult stem cells have been shown to be very effective at improving heart health in patients with heart disease.

Why Stem Cell Therapy for Heart Disease?

Heart diseases, including coronary artery disease and heart failure, are progressive, meaning they generally get worse over time. Current treatments for heart disease include drug therapy and surgery. Although these treatments can delay the impairment of the heart’s ability to pump blood, they cannot prevent the progression of heart disease.

Stem cells, on the other hand, have been shown in numerous studies to actually cause the heart muscle to regenerate. Numerous studies have shown that heart muscle that is damaged after a heart attack can heal, whether the damage is old or new (Strauer et al. 2008).

How Stem Cells are Used for Heart Disease

The procedure for treating heart disease with stem cells is called intracoronary stem cell therapy. The stem cells are taken from the patient’s own bone marrow and are therefore called autologous stem cells. Because they come from the patient’s own body, there is no risk of rejection by the immune system, and anti-rejection drugs are not needed.

The procedure typically involves first preparing a blood vessel, which is done through the skin (percutaneous intervention). A catheter is inserted into the vessel, and a small balloon is inflated to make sure the vessel is open. Next, the stem cells are injected into the vessel, and the catheter is removed.

Heart Disease Improvements From Stem Cell Therapy

The improvement to cardiac function as a result of stem cell therapy can be dramatic. In one study (Yelda et al. 2007), patients who were so sick that they were on the heart transplant list received intracoronary stem cell therapy. Over the next six months, not only did their heart disease not progress, it actually improved, a result that is unheard of in non-surgical treatment.

Intracoronary stem cell therapy has been shown to help patients with several distinct forms of heart disease: heart muscle damage from heart attacks, coronary artery disease (clogged arteries), dilative cardiomyopathy (a weakened, enlarged heart that normally progresses to heart failure), and heart damage from high blood pressure.

Because the stem cells used in this procedure are adult stem cells, taken from the patient with informed consent, their use is uncontroversial. Unlike embryonic stem cell therapy, no legal or ethical barriers impede research into this form of adult stem cell therapy.