Repairing the Heart with Stem Cells, From the March 2013 Harvard Women's Health Watch

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Stem cells that can morph into any type of cell are being tested for their ability to reduce scar tissue and improve the heart's function after a heart attack.

Stem cells have the potential to grow into a variety of cell types, including heart cells. Could they possibly be used to repair and regenerate heart tissue damaged by a heart attack? To answer that question, the March 2013 Harvard Women's Health Watch asked a leading stem cell expert to weigh in on this experimental treatment.

A recent study from Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles suggests that stem cells may, indeed, heal damaged hearts. The researchers treated 17 heart attack survivors with an infusion of stem cells taken from their own hearts. A year later, the amount of scar tissue had shrunk by about 50%.

These results sound dramatic, but are they an indication that we're getting close to perfecting stem cell therapy? "This is a field where, depending on which investigator you ask, you can get incredibly different answers," says Dr. Richard Lee, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a leading expert on stem cell therapy.

"The field is young. Some studies show only modest or no improvement in heart function, but others have shown dramatically improved function," he says. "We're waiting to see if other doctors can also achieve really good results in other patients."

Studies are producing contradictory results partly because researchers use different methods to harvest and use stem cells. Some are taken from the bone marrow of donors, others from the recipient's own heart. It's not clear which approach works the best.

"Some investigators think this is just a few years away," says Dr. Lee. "And then there are others who feel that there is much more work to be done."

Right now, stem cell therapy is available only to people who participate in a research trial. Anyone who has had a heart attack or who is living with heart failure and wants to take part in a stem cell study can visit http://www.clinicaltrials.gov and search for trials in their area (for example, search "stem cells," "heart," "Los Angeles").

Read the full-length article: "Repairing the heart with stem cells"

Also in the March 2013 issue of the Harvard Women's Health Watch:

  •     Update on hormone therapy
  •     Needling away chronic pain
  •     Preventive mastectomy—is it worth the risks?

Harvard Women's Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $20 per year. Subscribe at http://www.health.harvard.edu/womens or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

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Natalie Ramm
Harvard Health Publications
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