When you suffer a heart attack, beating heart muscle cells become deprived of oxygen and die—and become encased in scar tissue. Once these cells die, they can’t be brought back to life. But new research presented this week has found that injecting a protein into the heart immediately following an attack can spur stem cells to repair the damaged heart tissue.
Presenting at this week’s Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging’s Annual Meeting in St. Louis, MO, researchers from the Gunma Prefectural Cardiovascular Center in Maebashi, Japan, have found that a protein called G-CSF—when injected into the hearts of patients who recently suffered an attack—can actually spur a type of bone marrow stem cells to migrate to the heart and curb the spread of cellular death that normally takes place.
Previous research had revealed that administering G-CSF improves the heart’s ability to pump blood. In this study, the team wanted to understand how G-CSF could do so in a patient who just suffered a heart attack. Dr. Takuji Toyoma, the study’s lead author, explained in a news release:
“This study shows that the first intravenous drip infusion of G-CSF during treatment just after hospitalization was able to rescue our patients. I am confident that with additional data from a forthcoming clinical trial, this protocol can be adopted as a standard of practice.”
In this study, the researchers gathered 40 patients who had recently suffered an acute heart attack. They gave half of them an intravenous G-CSF for a period of five days, while the others received a saline solution. A year’s worth of imaging and stress tests then revealed that the earlier the G-CSF was administered, the greater the improvement in blood flow and overall cardiac function.
As Toyoma explained above, the next steps involve a forthcoming clinical trial where the precise effects of G-CSF, including the timing of when best to administer the protein, can be determined.
The research team’s preliminary efforts hold promise in the fight against heart disease. While heart disease is still the world’s number one killer, recent medical advances have increased the chances of surviving an attack. However, for those that do survive they often must live with heart failure—their hearts unable to beat at full capacity.
Many scientists, including a variety of researchers supported by CIRM, have therefore looked to regenerative medicine to regenerate lost heart muscle. The findings presented by Toyoma and his team point to another avenue by which stem cells could be harnessed to improve the quality of lives for those who have experienced a heart attack, and maybe prevent their slide into heart failure.