Stem cell drug may heal heart damage in medical breakthrough


7th September 2011

Heart attack patients will be injected with stem cells in a new treatment hailed as a medical breakthrough.

It uses the cells to fortify and rebuild damaged heart muscles and blood vessels in an attempt to prevent further attacks.

Initial tests have shown promising results and a large advanced trial involving dozens of British patients is scheduled to begin later this year.

If successful, the pioneering procedure could be available across the NHS within five years, potentially saving thousands of lives.

It is low-cost and unique in the world of stem-cell treatment for heart disease because the cells used do not need to be taken from the patient after their heart attack, but are harvested from adult donors in advance and can be used ‘off the shelf’.

There is no risk of the patient rejecting the stem cells because the type used does not need a match donor.

Heart disease is the biggest killer in the UK, claiming a victim every six minutes.

Between 20 and 30 per cent of patients arrive at hospital too late, or have a heart attack too serious for them to benefit from traditional treatments.

Hospitals routinely treat patients with an angioplasty, which reopens a blocked artery using a fine tube – usually inserted near the groin – that makes its way to the heart and inflates a balloon called a stent.

This helps most patients, but many suffer heart failure, where damage to the organ spreads.

The stem-cell treatment Revascor is injected into the artery during the angioplasty to prevent damage to the heart, using the healing properties of stem cells. It can be administered up to 12 hours after a heart attack.

It will now be tested on 225 patients in six countries including Britain. They will be monitored for 36 months afterwards.

An initial trial of Revascor last year in 60 American patients with congestive heart failure saw a 75 per cent reduction in the risk of related deaths over the following 21 months.

The UK’s lead investigator in the research, Dr Jonathan Hill, a cardiologist at King’s College Hospital in London, said the treatment ‘offers the hope of a fully functioning lifestyle’ to a wide range of heart patients.

The Australian medical firm Mesoblast, which has patented the treatment, says it is revolutionary because the stem cells are obtained from the bone marrow of healthy donors in a non-invasive, half-hour procedure similar to giving blood.

Previous stem-cell trials for heart attack patients have required their own cells to be harvested after the attack, delaying treatment.

Professor Chris Mason, an independent stem cell expert at UCL, who was not involved in the research, said: ‘This is a serious trial and if it is shown to be safe and effective, this could be the beginning of a breakthrough in medicine.

‘Because the stem cells are “off the shelf” and ready to use, it could be a convenient and universal therapy.’