According to the World Health Organization, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world. The heart requires a constant supply of oxygenated blood to function. Over time, the arteries that lead to the heart can be blocked by arterial plaque. This plaque is usually caused by dietary and lifestyle choices, but genetic factors also play a part in developing arterial blockages and heart disease.

As soon as the heart is denied blood because of one of these blockages, it begins to die. The deadened area turns into scar tissue. These damaged areas lose efficiency, which means blood does not pump through the body as freely as before the heart condition developed. People who have suffered heart damage usually require maintenance therapy such as surgeries and medications to stay alive. Once a large enough percentage of the heart has died, it is believed that heart failure is inevitable.

Until recently, it was thought that damage to a heart is irreversible. But several clinical trials using stem cell therapy have shown that it is possible to slow damage to the heart, and even catalyze the heart to repair itself.

Hope for the Heart

Heart disease was believed to be an eventual death sentence. Doctors were certain that damage to the heart could be slowed, but never reversed. Once the damage began, slowly or quickly, the heart would fail.

But clinical research studies over the past few years have shown that stem cell therapy can significantly slow and even reverse the process of heart degeneration. One such trial at the Mayo Clinic for Regenerative Medicine determined that stem cells extracted from a patients bone marrow could be guided into becoming cardiac cells, and then injected into the patients heart.

It was quite a process to develop this procedure. The researchers had to identify the hundreds of proteins that are involved in the process of cardiogenesis (heart development), and then discover which of those proteins are necessary for coaxing a pluripotent stem cell to become a cardiac cell. Once found, those proteins were used to create a procedure to direct bone marrow stem cells to become cardiopoietic (heart creative) cells.

Every patient that was given the cardiopoietic cells experienced increased blood flow from the heart to the rest of the body, even six months after the treatment. Other factors also indicated that the treatment inspired the heart to begin regenerating itself.

Several other studies have been conducted in the past four years, and all of them showed positive results. It is now believed that stem cells can help direct heart tissue to begin repairing itself before or after a heart attack. They can even direct the heart to grow new cardiac blood vessels and muscle. Nearly all patients given stem cell treatments in this collection of trials experienced reduced risk of death and improved heart function, when compared to control groups.

An Emerging Science

Cardiac stem cell therapy is still a new field. No treatments have yet been approved for wide-scale use, as the results must me replicated in hundreds of trials before any governing body will approve those treatments. But the results thus far give reason for hope.

The major challenge is getting the transplanted stem cells to behave in the ways that are needed. When bone marrow stem cells are used, they must be transformed into cardiopoietic cells. While doctors now understand how to do this, it is still an experimental science that gives an unusual order to the cells. The anatomical mismatch could have unforeseen circumstances, especially in the long-term. No one has had a heart stem cell transplant for longer than five years at this time, so it is impossible to know what the long term effects will be.

Other challenges are getting the transplanted cells to behave in the ways that are needed, and ensuring that the cells are accepted by the body. Even when cardiac cells are used for the transplant instead of bone marrow cells, there is a chance those cells may not be able to communicate with the hearts electrical system. This could cause serious complications including arrhythmias. Or the cells could be rejected by the immune system of the host if they came from an unrelated donor.

But even with these challenges, the future for cardiac stem cell treatments looks bright. Stem cell therapy offers the hope that, for the first time in history, it is possible to reverse heart damage. A heart attack or heart disease will soon no longer be a guaranteed death sentence.

This type of research is the vanguard of a truly regenerative medicine. Instead of treating symptoms and offering palliative treatment as conventional medicine does now, regenerative medicine is working to actually cure diseases and heal and rejuvenate people. It is an incredible time to be alive. And it seems that we will soon be able to live longer and more vital lives, with our whole hearts.