Stem cells are incredible. Science is only starting to scratch the surface of how these amazing cells can help people suffering from heart failure and other cardiovascular issues. Here’s some information on what stem cells are, and how they may help heart attack patients and others who have problems involving their heart tissue.
Stem Cells – The Basics
There are more than 200 kinds of cells in the body, and each type is specifically structured for the job it’s supposed to do. There are skin cells, nerve cells, and cells that form heart tissue and other tissues in the body.1
Stem cells are more advanced. They can either self-renew or copy themselves, or they can develop into other types of cells.
They’re found in bone marrow, blood vessels, the liver, the brain, and other parts of the body. Stem cells are even found in the umbilical cord. These sophisticated cells change over time as the body matures. Some of them disappear shortly after you’re born, while others stay with you for a lifetime.2
There are three main types of stem cells – tissue-specific (adult stem cells), embryonic stem cells, and induced pluripotent (iPS) stem cells. Here’s a quick look at each type:
· Adult stem cells
These typically reside in a specific organ, generating other cells to support the health of that organ. They replace those that are lost through injury, or through everyday living.3
· Embryonic stem cells
Embryonic stem cells form about three to five days after a sperm fertilizes an egg. These are also known as pluripotent cells. This simply means they can develop into any sort of cell the body needs to develop.4
· iPS cells
Embryonic cells have been the source of a massive controversy. The main reason is that harvesting these cells destroys the embryo.5 Scientists are working to develop iPS cells that come from adult stems cells – rather than embryonic cells. Early research indicates that these cells may share many of the same characteristics of embryonic cells. But there are differences between the two, and there is more work to be done before scientists know exactly what those differences are.6
How Can Stem Cells Benefit Heart Patients?
Research is ongoing into the potential use of stem cells for heart health. For example, work is being done to see if stem cells can help improve heart attack survival rates. Scientists are also looking into the potential for giving a patient their own cardiac stem cells after a heart attack, or even giving patients non-cardiac stem cells from a donor after an attack takes place.7
The goal of this research is to eventually provide cardiac patients with stem cells that can regenerate heart tissue that has been damaged. Some researchers feel that these advances are imminent, while others believe there is a great deal of work yet to be done.8
Early results from ongoing clinical trials involving stem cells for heart health are extremely promising. In one study, a group of 109 patients suffering from heart failure received either stem cell therapy or a placebo. According to the results, the patients who received stem cells were at significantly lower risk of hospitalization or death due to a sudden worsening of their condition.9
Heart failure affects more than 5 million people in the U.S.10 It occurs when the heart gradually weakens to the point to where it can’t pump enough blood to meet the needs of the rest of the body. For those with severe heart failure, the only options are either to have a heart transplant or have a device planted to help the heart continue pumping. And even this is only a temporary measure – they’ll still need a transplant.11
Another study involved the use of stem cells from the umbilical cord. This trial involved 30 heart failure patients. Like the previous study, one group received stem cells while the other received a placebo. The umbilical cords were donated by healthy mothers whose babies were delivered through cesarean section.12
According to the results, the hearts of patients who received the umbilical cord stem cells pumped better than those of the placebo group. The stem cell patients also showed improved quality of life and day-to-day functioning. In addition, the stem cell group did not report any adverse effects, such as immune system reactions.13
The Bottom Line
As you can see, the use of stem cells to treat heart patients shows great promise. But this is still an extremely young scientific field, and a great deal more research must be performed. Many questions have to be answered, such as what approaches to stem cell harvesting will work the best and what types of side effects are possible from stem cell treatment.
However, this research does bring hope. And hope is something that is incredibly important to many of those suffering from severe cardiac illnesses.