Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hope for treating heart disease with stem cells?

It's a big day for announcing prizes to CIRM grantee, and a good week for stem cells in heart disease. CIRM scholar Li Qian from The Gladstone Institutes won the Louis N. and Arnold M. Katz Basic Science Research Prize for Young Investigators from the American Heart Association (AHA). Hers was one of several announcements this week regarding the potential treatments for heart damage after heart attack.

According to a press release from The Gladstone Institutes:
"Dr. Qian received the prize for her findings that non-muscle cells that normally form the architectural support for the heart can be reprogrammed into beating heart muscle cells. This reprogramming may allow scientists to transform non-beating scar tissue resulting from heart disease—and which was previously considered irreparable—into beating tissue again."

Qian is carrying out her work in the lab of CIRM grantee Deepak Srivastava, who last year published work in which he and his colleagues converted mouse heart support cells called fibroblasts into beating heart cells in a laboratory dish (read our blog about that work here). For Qian's work, which was presented at the AHA meeting in Orlando, she and Srivastava carried out the same feat in a living mouse. The team delivered factors directly into the hearts of mice with induced heart attacks (you can read the abstract for that work here). Those injections seemed to have induced support cells to convert into heart muscle cells, and three months later the mice had less heart dysfunction than their labmates who hadn't received the injections.

Of course, mice aren't humans and three months isn't long enough to know if the benefits of the injections will last.

This award comes during what has been a big week for stem cells in heart disease. For many years now, research groups have been testing stem cells isolated from the bone marrow to see if they can effectively treat damage from heart attacks. Results had been ambiguous. Researchers saw some improvement, but it seemed to be short-lived in most studies.

In studies published earlier this week, a group from Louisville and a group of CIRM grantees from Cedars-Sinai both published results suggesting that stem cells isolated from the heart could produce improvements that last up to a year.

ABC News spoke to one of the patients who participated in the University of Louisville trial:
Mike Jones, the very first patient to receive the treatment in July 2009, said it not only gave him more years to live, but a better quality of life during those years.
"Now I can do more with my grandkids," said Jones, 68, who lives in Louisville. "I pitched softballs with my granddaughter for probably 15 minutes today. I got a little bit winded at the end, but that's something that before the stem cells would have been just impossible."
These studies involved small numbers of people and the results need to be confirmed in much larger trials. Still, those of us with heart disease in the family will be watching to see how the cells fare in the larger trials. My own grandfather, unlike Jones, would not have been able to pitch softballs after his heart attack.


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