An injection that allows damaged hearts to mend themselves and could be given by paramedics in the back of ambulances is being developed at a British university.
Scientists at Imperial College London hope that giving heart attack victims an injection of stem cells will trick the organ into repairing itself, saving lives and greatly cutting the odds of further ill health.
Crucially, and unlike other techniques being tested on patients in the UK, the cells they plan to use are from a person’s own heart, an innovation they believe increases the odds of the treatment being a success.
If trials on heart attack survivors are successful, the injection could eventually be given by paramedics just minutes after a heart attack and before patients even reach hospital.
This is one of several treatments being researched by the British Heart Foundation as part of its multi-million-pound Mending Broken Hearts project to improve the care of heart attack patients.
The aim is to cut the odds of heart failure, in which the heart, weakened by one, or a series of heart attacks, struggles to pump blood around the body.
More than 750,000 people live which heart failure in the UK alone, with everyday tasks such as eating, dressing and even getting out of bed leaving many breathless and exhausted.
In the most severe cases, the lungs ‘drown’ in fluid.
Treatments range from drugs to transplants but with 40 per cent of those affected dying within a year of diagnosis, heart failure has a worse survival rate than many cancers.
Stem cells come to the rescue:
Doctors and scientists around the world are trying to use stem cells – ‘blank’ cells able to turn into various types of tissue – to shore up ailing hearts.
Scientists have now found a way of extracting stem cells from a patient, growing them in huge numbers the laboratory, then injecting them back into the heart.
Once there, they patch up the ailing tissue, with tests on mice showing stem cells taken from the animals’ hearts trigger the growth of new tissue and blood vessels.
A stem cell backup plan
Storing stem cells in a biobank is becoming increasingly popular.
New borns are now regularly having the unmbilical cord blood saved and stored in biobanks because this blood is rich in potent stem cells. Other known sources rich in stem cells are bone marrow which has already been used for many years in human treatments and more recently, the dental pulp inside teeth.
Celebrity, Esther Rantzen, who is backing the Mending Broken Hearts appeal and whose late husband, the documentary maker, Desmond Wilcox battled heart disease for years, said:
‘If hearts learn to heal themselves, then people who are bed-bound, who are imprisoned in their own homes, who can’t walk upstairs, who can’t involve themselves in any physical activity could be restored to health and their family life greatly improved.’
Professor Peter Weissberg, the charity’s medical director, said that despite advances in cardiac medicine, a good treatment for severe heart failure has remained elusive.
‘The reason we are making such a noise about it now is that stem cell science has progressed to a point where it looks biologically feasible that we might be able to create new heart cells to repair the heart.
‘Ten years ago, that would have been science function.’