Skeletal stem cells may save ailing hearts
By Rhonda Rowland
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Researchers have transplanted skeletal muscle cells into a patient's heart during bypass surgery in an effort to stave off the need for a heart transplant, CNN learned Tuesday.
Following a heart attack, heart muscle dies and does not regenerate. Now researchers are trying to regenerate the heart muscle with cells derived from the patient's own skeletal muscle stem cells.
"The hope is to put in new healthy muscle cells so that overall the heart functions better, as well as the area that received the transplant," Dr. Robb MacLellan of the University of California, Los Angeles, told CNN.
The first patient to receive the new type of cell transplant as a therapy -- a man, over age 60, who had previously suffered two heart attacks and has been treated with balloon angioplasty -- underwent the procedure at UCLA three weeks ago.
He is on the list for a heart transplant, but there is a remote possibility that the experimental treatment could supercede the need for a new heart.
"We want to know if the procedure is safe and logistically if it can be done," said MacLellan. "We hope there will be long-lasting improvement in heart function."
In the experimental procedure, skeletal muscle stem cells are harvested through a simple biopsy in the leg or arm. The cells are then cultured in the laboratory for 10 to 12 days and transplanted into the damaged area of the heart at the same time the patient undergoes heart bypass surgery.
"Skeletal muscle stem cells are easy to use and there are no ethical or practical issues with using them compared to fetal tissue stem cells," said MacLellan, "and you don't have to deal with rejection."
Stem cells have been described as "blank" cells that can be turned into almost any type of tissue in the body.
Last year European researchers reported initial success with the therapy in a small number of patients.
"They demonstrated the cells were able to beat," said Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, president American Heart Association. "Getting the cells to live is one thing, getting them to function is another. The cells were not beating as well as normal, healthy cells, but it was amazing they were beating at all. I was excited about it initially and still think it has potential."
The Cleveland Clinic and University of Pittsburgh are also participating in the initial safety studies. The first Cleveland Clinic patient will undergo the procedure in 10 days.
"There are still a lot of issues to be worked out," said Dr. Patrick McCarthy of the Cleveland Clinic. "What cells work best, what's the best way to grow them, how do they match up with existing heart cells or do the cells actually die. But, theoretically this is an important new area."
The use of muscle cells from various sources is just one area of research intended to find alternatives to heart transplantation and better ways to treat heart failure.
"Hopefully there will come a day when we work the bugs out, that we may not need to use much surgery," said McCarthy. "We could theoretically do the cell transplant through a catheter."
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