Lessons learned from babies with heart failure could now help adults
Inspiration can sometimes come from the most unexpected of places. For English researcher Stephen Westaby it came from seeing babies who had heart attacks bounce back and recover. It led Westaby to a new line of research that could offer hope to people who have had a heart attack.
Westaby, a researcher at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, England, found that implanting a novel kind of stem cell in the hearts of people undergoing surgery following a heart attack had a surprisingly significant impact on their recovery.
Westaby got his inspiration from studies showing babies who had a heart attack and experienced scarring on their heart, were able to bounce back and, by the time they reached adolescence, had no scarring. He wondered if it was because the babies’ own heart stem cells were able to repair the damage.
Scarring is a common side effect of a heart attack and affects the ability of the heart to be able to pump blood efficiently around the body. As a result of that diminished pumping ability people have less energy, and are at increased risk of further heart problems. For years it was believed this scarring was irreversible. This study, published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Translational Research, suggests it may not be.
Westaby and his team implanted what they describe as a “novel mesenchymal precursor (iMP)” type of stem cell in the hearts of patients who were undergoing heart bypass surgery following a heart attack. The cells were placed in parts of the heart that showed sizeable scarring and poor blood flow.
Two years later the patients showed a 30 percent improvement in heart function, a 40 percent reduction in scar size, and a 70 percent improvement in quality of life.
In an interview with the UK Guardian newspaper, Westaby admitted he was not expecting such a clear cut benefit:
“Quite frankly it was a big surprise to find the area of scar in the damaged heart got smaller,”
Of course it has to be noted that the trial was small, only involving 11 patients. Nonetheless the findings are important and impressive. Westaby and his team now hope to do a much larger study.
CIRM is funding a clinical trial with Capricor that is taking a similar approach, using stem cells to rejuvenate the hearts of patients who have had heart attacks.
Fred Lesikar, one of the patient’s in the first phase of that trial, experienced a similar benefit to those in the English trial and told us about it in our Stories of Hope.