Heart attacks are a big deal. Every 40 seconds, someone in the US suffers a heart attack, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even worse, the permanent loss of heart muscle after a heart attack can often lead to heart failure. With fewer muscle cells present, the heart is less able to pump blood to the rest of the body’s tissues. This form of heart disease can not only lead to a number of health problems, but also to premature death. In fact, over half of people diagnosed with heart failure die within 5 years. Stem Cell Research is now becoming the potential answer.
These are major reasons why heart disease researchers are aggressively seeking more effective treatments through cutting-edge innovations. One such innovation involves stem cell research. A study published recently highlights how medical testing on animals might lead to dramatic changes in the way heart attacks and heart disease is managed. Through monkey testing protocols, embryonic stem cell researchers are leading the way in future heart disease therapies.
Heart Disease—Still A Major Health Threat
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in both men and women. In fact, heart disease accounts for more than $200 billion in direct and indirect costs in the US. Though different forms of heart disease exist, coronary heart disease remains the most common. This condition can often lead to a heart attack when cardiac muscle fails to receive enough oxygen and blood flow. If enough cardiac muscle is damaged, heart failure may develop. And with scar tissue frequently replacing damaged heart muscle, other heart diseases can also appear. In addition to heart failure, cardiac arrhythmias are common problems that can be life-threatening in nature.
Stem Cell Research Trial Offers Potential Solutions
When it comes to heart disease treatment, embryonic stem cells may offer some promise. Researchers from the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine certainly think so. In the trial, researchers took several Macaque monkeys with heart failure and split them into two groups. One group received an injection of 750 million human embryonic stem cells into the heart muscle where a heart attack had occurred. The other group received no treatment. Both monkey groups then underwent testing to evaluate their heart’s ability to pump blood flow.
On average, the heart attacks caused significant damage to the monkey’s heart muscle. Their hearts’ ejection fraction (a measure of pumping effectiveness) fell from 65% (normal) to 40% (abnormal) on average. However, in the monkeys receiving stem cell injections 2 weeks after the heart attack, significant improvement in heart function occurred. Their ejection fraction improved by 10.6% one month later with an additional 12.4% improvement over the next two months. In contrast, the nontreated monkeys did not do nearly as well. Their ejection fractions only improved by 2.5% a month later and then fell 3.5% over the next two months.
Stems Cell Treatments in Heart Disease Is Not Without Issues
The embryonic stem cells research study did show that muscle cells replaced scar tissue in the monkeys’ hearts tested. Overall, MRI confirmed between 10% and 29% of the area normally scarred eventually became muscle. However, among the nine monkeys that completed the testing, one developed heart arrhythmias from the new stem cell muscle tissue. Also, the stem cell research protocol required the monkeys to be on immunosuppressive drugs. And stem cell use for heart disease is not cheap. Estimates suggest a similar stem cell treatment for heart attacks in humans may cost between $6,000 and $7,700. These barriers in addition to legal hurdles related to embryonic stem cell research still need to be considered before moving ahead.
Stem Cell Research and Future Heart Disease Treatments
One remarkable thing involving this stem cell research trial was how easy these new treatments for heart attacks might be. Potentially, embryonic stem cells might be given right after a heart attack to reduce scar formation and heart failure by administration through a catheter in a procedure similar to a coronary angiogram. Likewise, the treatment could require only a single treatment. The researchers are currently planning to test humans in the near future using the monkey testing research as a framework. In fact, researchers are planning a human stem cell research trial on heart attacks by 2020. If these stem cell research results show promise, future treatments for heart attacks could change dramatically. Stem cells could very well redefine modern heart attack protocols and heart disease prevention for many years to come.