Injecting stem cells isolated from a person's own blood into an ailing heart in hopes of repairing years of accumulated decay. Its an idea whose time has come.
Nearly five million people in the United States have heart failure caused by damage to the heart that interferes with its ability to pump blood, and nearly a million people suffer heart attacks each year. And despite a series of advances in cardiovascular care over the past decades, heart disease accounts for one in every 2.8 deaths in the United States. "In the past, we've relied on medication or mechanical therapies to open blood vessels and improve heart function," says Raval. "But there are still people who fail those therapies. Stem cells may have the potential to improve on that."
Because the study is randomized and "double-blinded," however, neither the patient nor the research physician knows if he received his own stem cells or a placebo substance. This trial is the first human Phase II adult stem cell therapy study in the U.S. Its goal is to investigate the efficacy, tolerability, and safety of blood-derived selected stem cells to improve symptoms and clinical outcomes in patients with chronic myocardial ischemia (CMI), a severe form of coronary artery disease.
Myocardial ischemia, which affects hundreds of thousands of people, is a serious heart condition that involves narrowing of coronary arteries and results in limited blood flow to the heart. A person who suffers from chronic myocardial ischemia continues to experience insufficient flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart despite optimum medical intervention.
"This type of therapy - regenerative medicine - treats diseases by using growth factors, genes or stem cells to promote blood vessel or tissue growth," explains Raval.
The goal with this approach, he says, is to promote either angiogenesis, which is the growth of new capillaries; arteriogenesis, or the maturation and enlargement of existing arteries and arterioles; or vasculogenesis, the sprouting of new arteries and arterioles.
The stem-cell study is considered the "gold standard" of research design: a prospective, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study that involves adult subjects who have severe coronary artery disease, are currently on maximal medical therapy and are not suitable candidates for conventional procedures (such as angioplasty, stents, or coronary artery bypass surgery) to improve blood flow to the heart.
"The initial results from Phase I of the trial were encouraging," Raval says. "Subjects reported feeling better with reductions in chest pain and improved exercise capacity during the early stage of the trial. That's encouraging to us."
Coronary artery disease is the most common form of heart disease and is the leading cause of death in the United States. This condition occurs when the coronary arteries and the smaller vessels that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle become narrowed or blocked by plaque deposits and blood clots. Poor blood flow and blood clots "starve" and injure the heart muscle.
The American Heart Association estimates that every year, between 125,000 and 250,000 individuals with coronary artery disease develop chronic myocardial ischemia (CMI), one of the most severe forms of coronary artery disease, which can cause unstable angina, heart attacks and progressive heart failure when adequate blood flow is not restored. CMI develops when the coronary arteries become so diseased that they limit the flow of blood to the heart and send small blood clots downstream, blocking the small blood vessels in the heart.
These blockages can result in a series of mini-heart attacks that, while they may be too small to notice at the time, in aggregate cause significant long-term damage to the heart muscle and disability to the patient. While cardiologists can restore blood flow in some cases, the heart muscle can be irreversibly damaged, leading to significant disability, progressive heart failure and often death.