Stem cell research offers hope for broken hearts

Cardiology researchers at the UW are engaged in exciting work to explore whether a patient’s own stem cells can foster the regeneration of damaged heart muscle.

The need for new therapies for damaged hearts is acute. There are about 6 million people in the U.S. with heart failure—mainly the result of heart attack—and there aren’t enough donor hearts available for transplant. April Stempien-Otero, associate professor of medicine and Craig Tall Family Endowed Professor in Heart Failure Research, is taking stem cells harvested from a patient’s own bone marrow and injecting them into the hearts of the same patients who are critically ill with coronary artery disease. These patients are waiting for heart transplants, and are using left ventricular assist devices to stay alive until transplant.

Because these devices are pumping blood to the body, the stem cells can be injected into the heart without risk to the patient’s health. After the patient has a transplant, Stempien-Otero examines the diseased heart to see if the injected cells helped regenerate heart muscle tissue.

Stempien-Otero’s program is important to heart patients everywhere because it represents “first-in-humans” work. “April’s work is not just like a standard clinical trial; it’s a scientifically driven study to understand the effect of the cells on the surrounding tissue,” says Chuck Murry, UW professor of pathology and bioengineering and Arra and Eva Woods Endowed Professor.

Stempien-Otero’s experiment has two goals. The first is to determine how certain marrow and other stem cells can improve blood-vessel formation and decrease scar-tissue formation in hearts that are receiving insufficient blood. The second is to have her study serve as a “proof of principle” for the process of injecting cells into damaged heart tissue and then examining the cells after the heart is retrieved.

She said that UW Medicine is one of the few places in the country where she could do this research. “It’s because of the combination of resources –including clean rooms for processing the cells, experts in bone marrow cells, experts in stem cells and a robust advanced heart disease program with patients willing to participate,” she says. “Everyone from all of these different areas has been highly collaborative.”

To date, Stempien-Otero has studied five patients out of the 12 needed to complete an initial study. Her project is part of a suite of studies at UW Medicine funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

“We’ll never be able to prevent heart attacks entirely, but for those patients who do have one we hope to regenerate the heart back to what it was,” says W. Robb MacLellan, professor of medicine and the Robert A. Bruce Endowed Chair in Cardiovascular Research.

MacLellan said that the broader goal of the research is for the UW to become the first institution to actually do pluripotent stem cell therapy. Pluripotent stem cells can give rise to any type of cell in the body except those needed to support and develop a fetus in the womb. Thus, it may hold promise for problems other than cardiac disease.