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Could stem cell therapy save people with heart failure?

The “life-saving” treatment uses patients’ own stem cells to repair the heart and help them live longer



Over 900,000 people in the UK suffer with heart failure. The Heart Cells Foundation tells SR Times how stem cell therapy could regenerate patients’ damaged heart, decrease the risk of stroke and save hundreds of lives. 

Heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition in which the heart muscle is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. When this happens, blood often backs up and fluid can build up in the lungs, causing shortness of breath and chest pain.

According to NHS England, at least five per cent of those aged over 75 years are affected by heart failure, rising to around 15 per cent in the very old while heart and circulatory diseases cause a quarter of all deaths in the UK.

“Heart disease and heart failure are some the biggest killers in this country,” says Jenifer Rosenberg OBE, founding partner of the Heart Cells Foundation – a UK-based charity that funds research into stem cell therapy for heart disease and heart failure.

Her late husband, Ian Rosenberg, founded the charity following his successful stem cells treatment for heart failure in Germany.

The foundation based at Barts and London NHS Trust aims to develop a potentially life-saving treatment that uses a patient’s own adult stem cells to repair the heart and help people live longer.

“This is what we call regenerative medicine,” says Professor Anthony Mathur, consultant cardiologist and director of interventional cardiology at St Bartholomew’s Health Centre, who runs the charity’s Compassionate Treatment Unit.

“In order to understand the role of this particular approach of using the person’s own cells to heal themselves, we’ve conducted three clinical trials where we targeted three different types of heart disease.

“The first trial treated patients suffering from heart failure from Ischaemic heart disease, the second treated patients within 24 hours of suffering a heart attack and the third treated patients with congenital and inherited heart failure,” Professor Mathur explains.

“We were able to demonstrate that [stem cell therapy] did reverse the damage in all the clinical trials, but particularly in the third one where we looked at patients with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) – a condition in which the heart muscle becomes weakened and enlarged – we saw a combination of improvements both in how the patients felt and in the measurements of the heart function.”

For those suffering with DCM there is currently no treatment beyond standard medical care, other than a heart transplant. However, as donor hearts are scarce, patients need to be assessed carefully before they get placed on the transplant waiting list. Last year, only 179 patients received a heart transplant in the UK.

“The group with DCM may be the most in need of a stem cell treatment,” says Mathur. “However, in order to get [the therapy] adopted by the NHS, we need to do a phase three clinical trial which involves up to 3,000 participants.”

This means that the charity needs to raise around £10m to fund the study and make the treatment available across the NHS. “Because of these frustrations, we set up a compassionate treatment unit, the only one that exists in the UK and Europe, where we’re able to treat patients each year on compassionate grounds,” Professor Mathur says.

“The Heart Cells Foundation has raised the funding to make this programme happen and so far around 60 per cent of the patients who’ve previously been told there was nothing more that could be done have reported improvement.”

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart failure was also associated with increased short-term and long-term risk of all stroke subtypes, suggesting that heart failure is a potent and persistent risk factor for ischemic stroke, intracerebral brain haemorrhage (ICH) and subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH).

“Although we haven’t looked directly at this, we could assume that by improving the heart function we might well decrease the chance of patients having strokes,” says Mathur.

Jenifer Rosenberg is optimistic. “The progress has been unbelievable,” she says. “But there’s still a lot more to achieve.

“It’s humbling to hear the patients’ stories and it motivates us to achieve our goal to make the treatment available on the NHS as quickly and cost effectively as possible.”