Patients involved in the study had all experienced recent heart attacks that damage heart muscle. The first step in the procedure involved inserting a catheter through a vein in the neck under local anesthesia. Using the catheter, researchers withdrew a small sample of healthy heart tissue. The tissue contains some stem cells, but the key step in the procedure is to multiply and purify the small number of stem cells so that they number in the tens of millions.
These cardiac stem cells, multiplied but originally from the patient’s own heart, were then infused back into the site of the heart attack. The result seems to be a nearly 50% drop in the size of the scar and a re-growing of healthy heart muscle, at least as far as could be determined using imaging technology.
It is important to note that this study is a Phase I clinical trial. Its main purpose is to show that there is no unwarranted risk in the procedure. The outcome of this trial, however, shows a real likelihood of benefit. The evidence is strong that scaring is reduced and heart muscle regenerated. It is too soon, of course, to know the long-term benefits.
What is new in this study is the strong likelihood of actual regeneration of heart cells. Whether the implanted cells produced the new muscles or whether they acted indirectly, triggering neighboring cells to divide and regenerate tissues, is still not clear.
The lead researcher in the study, Eduardo Marbán, made this claim about the finding: "This has never been accomplished before, despite a decade of cell therapy trials for patients with heart attacks. Now we have done it. The effects are substantial, and surprisingly larger in humans than they were in animal tests." Marbán is the director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute who invented the procedures and technology involved in the study, including the procedures for multiplying the stem cells.
"These results signal an approaching paradigm shift in the care of heart attack patients," said Shlomo Melmed, MD, dean of the Cedars-Sinai medical faculty and the Helene A. and Philip E. Hixon Chair in Investigative Medicine. "In the past, all we could do was to try to minimize heart damage by promptly opening up an occluded artery. Now, this study shows there is a regenerative therapy that may actually reverse the damage caused by a heart attack."
The study itself concludes with this claim: “Our study provides an initial indication that therapeutic regeneration might indeed be possible in cardiac tissue.”
The goal of regenerative medicine—the use of stem cells to help patients regrow cells and regenerate tissues or organs—has long been central to the dreams that surround stem cell research. Even though this in only a Phase I study and still must be replicated, it seems to be an important step in the development of regenerative medicine.
Many of course will be especially delighted that no embryonic stem cells were directly involved in this procedure. Those who object to the use of human embryos in research will regard these cells as “morally unproblematic.” It is also very significant to point out that because the cells come from the patients, there should be no issue of tissue rejection.
At the same time, it should be noted that the field of stem cell research advances as a whole field. Knowledge gained from one area (for example, using embryonic stem cells) opens the door for advances across the whole field.
The article, “Intracoronary cardiosphere-derived cells for heart regeneration after myocardial infarction (CADUCEUS): a prospective, randomised phase 1 trial,” appears appropriately in the Valentine’s Day issue of the medical journal, The Lancet.