Stem-Cells Could Provide Life Changing Heart Failure Treatment
Heart failure affects around 900,000 people in the UK, with more than half of sufferers being over the age of 75. For these people, a new treatment involving injecting patients with their own stem-cells might provide a new lease of life.
Heart failure is caused by weakness or stiffness in the heart muscle preventing it from working properly, meaning that it can’t pump blood round the body at the right pressure. It can cause breathlessness and extreme tiredness, and for some it can be fatal. It is generally incurable, and treatments vary from managing symptoms with drugs such as beta-blockers, to surgery and even heart transplants in extreme cases.
This new heart failure treatment could provide an alternative in some cases which could drastically improve patients’ quality of life compared to the currently available options.
What Is the Stem-Cell Treatment?
The treatment – which has already been carried out on 300 patients at Barts Health NHS Trust in London, and is due to be trialled on up to 2000 more patients from later this year – involves inserting a needle into the hip bone to remove bone marrow. Stem cells are then extracted from the marrow in a laboratory and injected back into the patient’s heart.
The idea is that the stem cells – unique for their ability to turn into different kind of cells, and so repair or grow new tissue – are able to reverse damage to the heart, and therefore improve patients’ condition. However, the doctors pioneering the technique still don’t entirely understand it.
“We are not exactly sure why it works,” said Professor Anthony Mathur, the trial’s chief co-ordinator at Barts and Queen Mary University of London. “It may be that the stem cells repair the partially damaged tissue, rather than regenerate new tissue. But whatever the process, we have had very positive results from the patients who have had the treatment so far.”
The treatment is carried out under general anaesthetic, and takes only around 15 minutes.
Philip Ford, 52, from Eastbourne, is one of the people who has already undergone the treatment, having previously had three heart attacks in four years. He describes the great improvement he’s seen in his quality of life.
“Stem-cell treatment was life-changing for me. I noticed an improvement in days. Before, I could hardly walk to the car – now I take the dog for a walk, play tennis once a week, and I can walk for an hour or so. Although my heart is still damaged, it is less severe than it was. I really do owe my life to this treatment.”
Continuing the Research
This research may seem to have great potential, but it is at risk due to high cost and lack of funding. The cost of continuing the treatment is an estimated £40 million, and with no government funding, the trial is currently being funded by the Heart Cells Foundation, the UK Stem Cells Foundation and the Barts Charity, though researchers are also seeking private investment. However, if trials of the treatment are successful and it is made widely available, it’s estimated that the cost of the procedure could fall to under £5000 per patient.
It would be “devastating” if the trials couldn’t continue, says Heart Cells Foundation chairman Jenifer Rosenberg. “There is no money allocated within the National Health Service budget from the Government for this type of research, and there is no money from the pharmaceutical industry because if this treatment proves successful, it will mean that patients take less medication.”
She continues: “More than one million people living in the UK have had a heart attack and the majority of these are living with heart failure. The pharmaceutical industry has failed to deliver new therapies and this is why we are so excited by the results of our stem-cell trials which suggest we have found a revolutionary new treatment.”