Can stem cells heal broken hearts?


Fergus Walsh explains how the patient's own cells are put back into his heart

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The biggest ever stem cell trial involving heart attack patients has got under way in London. The study, which will involve 3,000 patients in 11 European countries, should show whether the treatment can cut death rates and repair damaged tissue after a heart attack.

All the patients will have standard treatment to widen their narrowed arteries, which involves inserting a small tube called a stent. In addition, half the patients will have stem cells taken from their bone marrow and injected into their heart.

This will happen within days of them suffering a heart attack.

Start Quote

Neal Grainger

It's fantastic to be part of this trial”

End Quote Neal Grainger

"It's fantastic to be part of this," said Neal Grainger, 54, from Essex, who was the first patient in the UK to be treated.

UK's biggest killer

He had an infusion of his bone marrow stem cells at the London Chest Hospital just days after his heart attack last month.

"It's strange having something taken out of you and then put back, but I hope it helps me and a lot of others."

Cardiovascular disease is the biggest killer in the UK.

During a heart attack, a fatty plaque causes a blood clot inside an artery, starving heart muscle of oxygen and leaving scar tissue.

Although more and more patients are surviving heart attacks, they can be left considerably weaker because heart muscle has been permanently damaged.

Fluid build-up on the lungs is another problem and patients are often on medication for life.

There have been dozens of smaller trials using stem cells to treat heart attack patients.

'Definitive trial'

An analysis by the Cochrane Collaboration in 2012 suggested the treatment offered "modest improvement".

stem cells The patient's stem cells ready for use

But many trials involved just small numbers of patients.

"This is the definitive trial," said Prof Anthony Mathur, director of cardiology at Barts Health NHS Trust and chief investigator for the trial.

"After 15 years of research we will now have a clear answer. We hope to show that stem-cell injections can cut the number of people dying from heart attacks by 25%.

"If it works, it would open up a whole new branch of medicine, and give heart attack patients an entirely new treatment."

It is unclear exactly how a patient's own bone marrow stem cells might help repair their heart.

Donor adult stem cells have been used successfully for decades in bone marrow transplants, but in that situation it is a like-for-like replacement.

Expecting these cells to survive in the heart and transform into specialised heart cells is a huge challenge.

'Could save NHS money'

One theory is that they release chemical signals that enhance the activity of the heart's own stem cells.

University College Hospital in central London and King's College Hospital in south London are the two other centres in Britain taking part.

The trial includes hospitals in other major European cities such as Paris, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Rome and Copenhagen.

John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London and adjunct professor of medicine at Yale, said: "This trial does not have the backing of the pharmaceutical industry as there is no money in it for them. You can't patent a patient's own cells.

"So not only could this treatment save lives it could also save the NHS money."

The study, known as the BAMI (bone acute myocardial infarction), has received nearly £5m from the European Commission.

The results will be announced in five years.

Fergus Walsh, Medical correspondent Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    It is, of course, wonderful news. However, keep in mind our very slow pace when it comes to challenging doctrine laid down by industries who see they have a lot to lose . . . if evolutionary medicine takes hold.

    (Frankly, I see western medicine being held back by about thirty - fifty years at a minimum by these greedy characters.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    149. Have to agree, many of the patients at U Heart Center were men in the 45 to 70 age bracket who led active productive lives and were cut down in their prime/top productive years by heart attacks or arterial blockage. Many were stented the day of admission and sent home the next day after stabilization - a few of us kept longer as required bypasses. A totally positive H experience for all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    The medical profession seems hell-bent upon perpetuating life, instead of allowing people to die naturally. All they're doing is storing up problems for the NHS, which is already struggling to cope with treatment. Keeping people alive exacerbates the problem.

    I swear you are working for Conservative Central Office. This could come right out of their manifesto.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    I wished this treatment was available before my husband died. he died in September of last year. He had a heart attack last April and never really recovered from it. He was only 57.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Definitely there are a lot of diff heads on this Page, if you're going to have an heart attack then you will have one, lifestyle or not, genetics or not if it's going to happen it will and there's nothing you can do to stop it and if you believe differently dream on,
    Myself i have had four heart attacks and have two stents, I would say that makes me an expert and know what I am talking about

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    143. A boy was born this week in our small community with a cleft palette, the road ahead is going to be very difficult for the first time parents.

    Considering the 'pump head' risk, I would have opted for the U of T (130.) MZ-004 solution, if available, to avoid the massive intervention of a triple bypass. While promising, stem cell attempts at heart repair are pure research at this point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    140. Chris A

    "138 - at least you have ceased sighing and alluding to the need for mono syllables."

    It was followed by a ";)" meaning slightly in jest.

    And also stating that the private sector only exists to create profit... Really? And what do bears do in the woods ... I wonder?

    But that was in reply to "get a life" ? from Tc1234 - hardly endearing, the response could have been alot worse :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    141. $4 trillion off book added to the national debt - 2001/2008: i.e. the money spent was borrowed! $4 trillion actual $'s could have solved a lot of real medical issues indeed, however, a for profit health system would not realize more that a couple of $trillion actually employed doing the-work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    To those who say "Prevention is better than cure" - remember that a lot of this is congenital and genetic and can't be prevented by lifestyle choices.

    On the other hand, if anyone can invent a method of correcting genetic abnormalities at the early zygote stage so that the baby can grow perfectly healthy, I'd be all for it.

    No doubt someone would protest about the "perfect master race", though

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    139. Had read about 'pump head' before my bypass: so was concerned and have worked memories with my family ever since surgery. Lipitor for life a reality. Existing plaque removal might simply exacerbate the debris situation in the blood stream?

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Oh what we could do without wars to pay for!
    Average estimates of the cost of Iraq & Afghanistan wars come out at US (alone) 4 trillion dollars. That's a lot of money not available for research & saving lives.
    I guess it's all about priorities...

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    138 - at least you have ceased sighing and alluding to the need for mono syllables.

    Motivated US Foundations can and do fund these types of field trials - Bill Clinton (a heart attack survivor) might be enjoined to fund a US trial?

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Sadly we still do not have anything that will reverse the accumulation of plaque. Statins will only halt it but cannot undo previous damage.After this research maybe we need to look for some way of reducing existing plaque. Most of us have it not just the gluttons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    128. Chris A

    Point is that this if successful will be a fantastic advancement that will help millions & save us money

    From "PUBLIC" funding - It would never happen if we relied on private sector. I was trying to highlight & celebrate the public funding aspect!

    Government seems determined to cut ALL public funding &rely on Private

    #122 disdain@ #121 who argues, then restates my point re profit

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    132. Yes, odd that the cynics would bother to read the item yet alone post their vitriol. Can you imagine their zeal for a fix if they ever suffered a heart attack out of the blue? Would understand some reaction if embryonic stem cells were suggested here - a poster did bring up born-again, Bush Jr's categorical opposition to that research. American foundations could easily fund these trials.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    This sounds terrific. Given that Big Pharma have no interest in it, shouldn't a fund be set up for the wealthy and ordinary members of the public to contribute. Perhaps supported pound for pound by Government. This will help almost everyone if it works. Heart attacks are a major cause of death & disability. Even if you don't have one your loved ones probably will.

  • Comment number 135.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    As I see it, the six main heart disease challenges which could all be helped by stem cells are
    - reparing muscle damage from heart attacks
    - curing arrythmias (atrial fibrillation etc)
    - repairing the heart conduction system (to get people off pacemakers)
    - growing heart valves
    - growing arterial conduits
    and the ultimate..
    - growing a complete new heart

    We need to push for all of these.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    We need more cutting edge stuff like this. As a congenital heart patient I am keenly aware of the limits of our technology - it will keep you alive but quality of life is distinctly lacking in many cases.

    If we could persuade enough millionaires and common people alike that it's in their interests to donate to research - because everyone's heart ages - what could we achieve in ten years?

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Earlier cynics suggested that people should just be allowed to die.

    My father didn't eat junk food, we couldn't afford it. He worked hard and had a heart attack at 40.

    I suppose there are still a moronic group of people on HYS who feel that he should have been left to die.


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