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Broken Hearts Repair Themselves With New Treatment

Heart Repair

There is new hope to help repair heart damage after a heart attack.

According to British researchers the heart has built-in repair cells that can be activated after acute damage – a breakthrough that may help significantly improve a patients prognosis after a heart attack.

The study, funded by the British Heart Foundation and lead by University College of London researchers, used a special treatment to target stem-like cells that line the outside of the heart muscle of mice. When treated, these cells regenerate new healthy cardiac tissue and integrate into the heart muscle to replace damaged cells.

“To repair a damaged heart is one of the holy grails of heart research,” said Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the BHF. “This groundbreaking study shows that adult hearts contain cells that, given the right stimulus, can mobilize and turn into new heart cells that might repair a damaged heart.”

When a person experiences a heart attack the blood supply to the cardiac muscle is temporarily decreased or absent, depriving the cells of essential oxygen and nutrients. This deprivation leads to permanent and irreversible damage to the heart.

Panama City, Florida cardiologist Michael Stokes, MD. F.A.C.C. explained in an interview that cardiologists work very hard to try and help the heart compensate for the damage that is done after a heart attack by using every means possible including surgery, stents, resynchronization therapy, etc. However, he says “the ability to improve cardiac function reaches a limit. A primary reason for this limit is dead [heart] muscle cells that no longer can contribute to the patient's cardiac [function]”.

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So as an alternative to these current limited therapies many researchers have been looking for ways to help repair the actual damage left behind after a heart attack. In embryos, scientists have known that there are certain cells that line the outside of the heart that act like stem cells. When activated they can transform into many different types of cells, such as cardiac muscle, to create new tissue. However, up until now, these cells were believed to be useless in adults.

Professor Paul Riley, lead researcher on the study, along with his colleagues decided to reexamine these types of cells in the hearts of adults mice. They used a special treatment called thymosin beta 4 to treat these cells and were surprised to find that it did in fact work to activate these cells in the adult tissue.

“These results strengthen the evidence that in the future there may be a drug, or cocktail of drugs, that could be given to people whose hearts have been damaged by a heart attack, to prevent the onset of heart failure,” said Pearson.

Stokes adds that this would not only save lives, but improve the quality of lives of those suffering from end-stage cardiac disease. “We recently lost such a patient who succumbed to his failed heart function,” he recalled. “Had we been able to replace some of his non-functioning myocardial cells with functional ones, the outcome could have been different. No one expects to live forever, but we are always searching for means to give our patients quality of life at the 'end of life'".

In addition to the present study, another report was released today from Cytori Therapeutics who are also looking at ways to use stem cells in heart attack patients. They announced that their clinical trial results are showing stem cell injection treatments taken from abdominal tissue are effective in decreasing heart attack damage in humans. This treatment is expected to be available in the near future.

Cytori Heart Attack Treatment Breakthrough for Cardiologists
Smart, N., et al. (2011) "De novo cardiomyocytes from within the activated adult heart after injury" Nature Journal doi:10.1038/nature10188

UPDATED: 16:15 EST with interview from Cardiologists Panama City FL