Thursday, May 2, 2013

Stem cells being tested in heart disease: "We don't want to give false hope to people"

Bradley Fikes has an interesting story in today's San Diego Union Tribune* about stem cell approaches for treating heart disease.

But first, a complaint about the headline "Scripps Clinic Performs Stem Cell Heart Therapy." They didn't. I mean the therapy part, that is. It's not a therapy if it's not therapeutic, and in this very early stage trial, the researchers won't know if the approach worked for many years. (I know from painful experience that the writer doesn't get to write the headline, so no offence to Fikes, who is generally a careful reporter.)

I have a real pet peeve about making it sound as if a trial for a new medical technique or drug worked, because it gives a false sense of hope for people waiting for those therapies. That said, what impressed me is how Fikes described the work in his story.

After describing the trial, which involves extracting stem cells from fat and injecting them into the damaged portion of the heart, he goes on to quote the lead scientist at Scripps, Dr. Richard Schatz:
Schatz cautioned that even if the trial is successful, it will take a long time before the therapies become standard treatment. 
"We don't want to give false hope to people," Schatz said. "These trials take 10 to 15 years to do. It's just honest to let them know it is an experimental trial."
Exactly! There are hundreds of trials taking place right now (here's the national list of such trials) testing various approaches of treating heart damage with stem cells. Some use stem cells from bone marrow, others are testing stem cells from fat, and some, including the CIRM funded group at Capricor, are working with the heart's own stem cells. In the Union Tribune story, Fikes mentions that Scripps will also be a site carrying out the Capricor trial.

In addition to the different types of stem cells, scientists are testing ways of getting those various cell types into the heart. Remember that the heart's job is to pump cells out, so getting cells to stay in long enough to do any good is no small hurdle. We don't yet know which cell type or which approach to getting the cells into the heart is going to be the one that works.

That's not to say there's no hope for stem cell approaches to treating heart disease--there is. Some of these early trials are looking quite promising. And if there was no hope we wouldn't be funding the Capricor team and other heart disease approaches.( In fact, we've been really happy to see all the attention to Capricor work has been getting recently. They were recently featured in an report written by an equity research analyst at Maxim, which was distributed to institutional investors on wall street.)

There's more information on our heart disease fact sheet about CIRM's funding of stem cell approaches to treating heart disease, along with videos about Capricor's approach. We're excited about the potential of the field and it's great to see stories like Fikes' explaining the process of getting from an early trial to widespread availability.


* (Editor's note: The San Diego Union Tribune story I reference has been updated to correct a statement that a patient interviewed had received stem cells. In a blinded trial it's unknown whether the patient received the cells or was in a placebo group.)

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