Cardiomyopathy is one of medicine’s biggest complications. Despite several discoveries and breakthroughs in Cardiology or cardiovascular medicine, a damaged heart can rarely be restored to its full potential. However, recent research has shown that stem cells (cells that can divide and differentiate into diverse specialized cell types) taken from a person’s own heart, can be used to repair damaged heart tissue.
The study was called the Stem Cell Infusion in Patients with Ischemic Cardiomyopathy (SCIPIO) trial. The initial trial procedure was carried out on patients with heart damage who were undergoing heart bypass surgery. Whilst the patient was in surgery, a piece of tissue from their right atrial appendage was extracted. Researchers isolated the cardiac stem cells from this piece of heart tissue and allowed them to divide until they had around two million stem cells for each patient.
“We believe these findings are very significant,” said Dr. Robert Bolli after the cells were injected into the patients a hundred days later. Of the 14 patients given the treatment, it was noticed that their hearts were beginning to pump blood more efficiently. The percentage of blood leaving one of the heart’s main chambers per heartbeat had increased from 30.3% (at the beginning of the trial), to 38.5% after four months. The seven patients who were not injected with stem cells (the control group of the study) showed no improvement in heart function. “Our results indicate that cardiac stem cells can markedly improve the contractile function of the heart,” says Dr. Bolli.
While Dr Bolli argues that stem cells from the heart might be very useful as “their natural function is to replace the cells that continuously die in the heart due to wear and tear”, some experts oppose this new study and say that methods using bone marrow stem cells are more advanced. Professor Mathur (from Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry) and Professor Martin (from University College London) are carrying out randomised clinical trials using bone marrow stem cells on patients within six hours of a heart attack. The trial is still in its initial stages, but Professor Mathur refers to the early results as “great and promising”.
The SCIPIO was a small study to introduce the idea of using heart stem cells to aid heart damage. The findings of the study demonstrated that the technique was safe as no treatment-related side effects were known to emerge. Additionally, the treatment improved aspects of heart function, reduced heart tissue scarring and improved quality of life one year after treatment. The control group did not show these improvements over the same period of time.
Although the study was effective, it should be noted that the study group was a small one carried out on only 14 patients (granted this was necessary for the sake of safety initially). Since only a small number of people were examined in this “safety trial”; the effectiveness of the treatment cannot be ensured unless a larger trial was to be carried out in order to observe the effects, and to guarantee that they were not due to chance. Still, this preliminary study is rather promising and incites hope that there may be a new and powerful development in cardiovascular medicine.