Heart attacks, the number one cause of heart failure, are caused by a sudden catastrophic death of hundreds of millions of heart muscle cells – functioning cells that cannot be replaced by the normal healing process. At the Center for Regenerative Medicine, we are working toward an actual cure for heart failure by regenerating lost heart muscle cells and eliminating the need for life-long treatments with expensive drugs and devices. Such a cure could save thousands of lives, improve the quality lives of millions of heart failure patients and save the health care economy billions of dollars every year.
The power of cell regeneration
Until recently, it was thought that humans were born with all of the heart cells they would ever have throughout life. In the past 10 years, however, scientists have discovered that our heart muscle cells are actually continually replaced. Although researchers have discovered that these heart muscle cells are re-generated by cardiac stem cells located in microscopic niches throughout the heart, these stem cells are unable to replace and regenerate nearly enough heart cells after catastrophic cardiac cell death that occurs with heart attacks. New evidence is mounting that natural stem cell regeneration may be dramatically enhanced by stem cell therapies.
Taking the lead in regenerative research
The U.S. government, pharmaceutical and medical device firms spend billions of dollars every year in research to develop new palliative treatments for heart failure but thus far there have been no cures. Unfortunately, there has been relatively little support for the use of a patient’s own cells to cure heart failure – regenerative medicine does not fit traditional research and development funding paradigms that support drug and device research. While cures may be good for patients, they may not be a good medical business model. Until the National Institutes of Health and other government sources can be re-directed to the development of cures using autologous cells, philanthropy will be extremely important in funding regenerative medicine research. Once this concept can be successfully demonstrated, it could change the future for thousands of patients suffering heart disease and change the way heart attacks are treated.
While basic and clinical trials have shown that autologous stem cell therapy to replace heart cells after heart attacks has been safe in almost every instance, the benefit has been only modest because very few of the stem cells administered to the heart engraft within the areas of cell death or infarction. During their brief residence they appear to release growth factors that enhance original cells to improve healing, but the effect is insufficient.
Over the last eight years we have studied methods to improve engraftment and long-term residence of stem cells within the injured muscle to determine if we could achieve a complete recovery. We have discovered safe, simple, inexpensive methods to enhance engraftment that then create a multitude of new contracting muscle cells. This advance, produced through our pre-clinical research with the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine to treat battlefield blast injuries of the extremities, has shown a remarkable improvement in functional recovery compared to current published data.
The novel and unique research thrust of our group at the Center demonstrates the means to realize the full potential of heart regeneration. The discoveries that we have made – and plan – will make a significant improvement that could translate into a true cure for heart failure. Through advances in regenerative medicine, the health care economy could save hundreds of thousands of dollars per heart failure patient – and give the patient a better, healthier life.