• Australian medical scientists may soon be able to use stem cell therapy to repair damaged heart muscle tissue post-heart attack. (shutterstock)
Hope is on the horizon for heart attack patients and Australians at risk of heart failure, as medical researchers investigate the promise of stem cell therapy in repairing damaged hearts.
By
Yasmin Noone

14 Feb 2016 - 12:15 AM  UPDATED 15 Feb 2016 - 4:32 PM

Australian medical scientists may soon be able to use stem cell therapy to repair damaged heart muscle tissue post-heart attack and reduce the risk of future heart failure.

Researchers from The Westmead Institute are currently investigating the possibility of using cellular therapies to stimulate regeneration of the failing heart.

Consultant Cardiologist at Westmead Hospital and The Westmead Institute’s Cardiac Regeneration Group Leader, Dr James Chong, believes Australia is around five years away from launching the first clinical trials into stem cell therapy for the purpose of damaged heart tissue regeneration.

“I think it’s quite promising,” says Dr James Chong. “We are poised to see a new wave in cellular therapies using stem cells.

We are poised to see a new wave in cellular therapies using stem cells.

“In the not-too-distant future, these therapies will become a viable treatment option to repair damaged heart muscle.

“…For Australians and other people around the world, finding a treatment for heart failure could bring them a new lease on life.”

The institute is currently conducting two major concurrent investigations, reaping positive findings for future heart attack patients.

The first is a pilot study that looks at injecting adult blood vessel cells or heart muscle cells directly into the hearts of rats or mice that have been damaged by heart attack.

The other body of research is using pluripotent stem cells – a special type of cell that can be reprogrammed to behave like an embryonic cell – to repair damaged tissue.

These unique cells display superior plasticity, which is essential to heal a functioning but damaged heart.

Dr Chong explains the regenerative abilities of pluripotent cells stem from a similar type of embedded “raw power” found in embryonic cells.

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“Embryonic cells go on to form every cell in the body. They are programed to do that.

“The power to regenerate is inherent in their programming.”

The research, conducted by Dr Masahito Ogawa from the Institute’s Centre for Heart Research, has already shown positive results.

Preliminary findings reveal that pluripotent stem cell therapy does improve heart function.

“As well as assessing the safety and efficacy of stem cells, one of the challenges of this work is to find the ideal stem cell type and therapeutic approach for heart failure therapy,” says Dr Masahito Ogawa.

“Another arm of our work involves using a viral vector to promote stem cell potency – and thus growth – in resident cardiac stem cells. This technique is also showing promising results.”

Dr Chong explains that it’s not yet clear which therapy will bear fruit first and which will be the meaningful clinical therapy.

“But I am strong believer that one of them will.

“I would hope we would see these therapies in experimental trials within the next five years. And once clinical trials [produce a] result we need to refine them for the tested treatment to become a therapy.”

According to Heart Research Australia, chronic heart failure kills more than 20,000 Australians each year.

Cardiovascular diseases are the greatest non-communicable cause of mortality worldwide and is leading to an increased burden of heart failure.

“Cardiovascular diseases are the greatest non-communicable cause of mortality worldwide and is leading to an increased burden of heart failure,” says Dr Chong on Heart Research Day on Sunday.

Although progress has been made in slowing the decline to heart failure and in improving pump function with medications in some cases, there is still no effective treatment for the severe heart failure after heart attack.

This means more people are now living with damaged hearts.

“These damaged hearts can get weaker and weaker. The only alternative is a whole heart transplant but the truth is that we will never have enough donor hearts. 

“So this is where stem cell therapy and heart regeneration comes to the fore as stem cells are able to regenerate these tissues.”

More tests are needed to prove the worth of stem cell therapy to repair damage to a heart post-heart attack.

In 2014, a team led by Dr James Chong for the first time regenerated heart muscle in several primates by grafting heart muscle cells developed from human embryonic stem cells.

The science behind the use of pluripotent cells is based on research by that won John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka the Nobel Prize in 2012.

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