Mending broken hearts

Pioneering stem cell research is paving the way for radical treatment that could improve the health of patients with heart failure, with the help of a legacy gift.

a heart and a stethoscope

Stem cells are a cornerstone of regenerative medicine, potentially one of the most revolutionary areas of 21st-century biomedical science, harnessing the power of a patient’s own cells to help failing organs heal. A groundbreaking new project taking place at the University is showing promise in helping heart attack patients avoid future heart failure.

The majority of cells in the body are specialised, meaning they have developed into a distinctive cell type – for example, brain, lung or bone cells. In contrast, stem cells are unspecialised and have a remarkable ability to transform – or differentiate – into specialised cell types.

Extraordinary potential

Stem cells also have the ability to self-renew, continually dividing to produce copies of themselves when needed. This ability to self-renew could hold the key to repairing damaged organs in the body and, in the last 20 years, scientists have begun to explore and exploit the extraordinary potential of stem cells to aid tissue repair.

Edinburgh has an enviably strong history in stem cell research, notably as the home of the world’s most famous sheep, Dolly – the first mammal derived from an adult cell. Born in 1996 at the Roslin Institute, Dolly was a pioneering marvel and heralded a new era in science.

The researchers who created Dolly, led by Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, proved that adult cells could be reprogrammed to behave like embryonic cells, a crucial step towards laying the foundations for a pioneering technology, known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). iPSC allows scientists to take cells from the skin or blood and reprogramme them into any other cell type, including brain cells.

David Newby
Professor David Newby leads the study into the use of stem cells to treat heart failure

Changing patients' lives

Across the city, the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM), based at Edinburgh Bioquarter, recently celebrated its 10th birthday. A world-renowned centre of excellence in stem cell research, the Centre has led numerous cutting-edge studies, shedding light on a wide range of life-threatening conditions including liver disease, Parkinson’s disease and brain cancer.

An ongoing study at the University’s British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence exemplifies how important stem cell and regeneration could be in changing patients’ lives.

Improvements in medical care means that more people are surviving heart attacks, but consequently, more people are now at risk of heart failure as attacks leave lasting damage on heart muscle.

Heart failure – a condition in which the organ can no longer pump blood around the body as effectively as it should – seriously impacts on quality of life, limiting physical activity and causing shortness of breath.

The study – supported by the French company CellProthera and led in the UK by Professor David Newby – is harnessing the power of stem cells to reduce the risk in patients who have recently had a heart attack.

Remarkable improvement

The treatment being trialled exploits the capacity of stem cells that are circulating in a patient’s blood, focusing on CD34+ stem cells, which are important in supporting new blood vessels.

People taking part in the trial have five daily injections to stimulate the production of stem cells and a sample of blood is then sent to a lab in to boost the number of 34+ stem cells by 20 times. The trial is testing the effects of delivering stem cells directly into the patient’s heart using a novel corkscrew-shaped injection system close to damaged tissue.

Early results from the study show that, 10 years after treatment, six out of seven patients have remarkable improvement in their heart health, with some showing near-normal heart function. If proven successful, the team hopes that one day the approach could reduce the need for heart transplants.

Professor Newby, an expert in cardiology, cautions that the study is ongoing and may not be suitable for all patients who have had a heart attack.

“We are very optimistic with these findings, but the results have to be replicated in a larger clinical trial,” he says.

We are some way off this being used in routine care; however, if the results from a large trial are positive, it could have huge implications for people who have had heart attacks.

Professor David Newby

Stem cell biologist

Last year, ground was broken on what will be the Centre for Tissue Repair Centre (CTR), which promises to enhance the work done at CRM when it opens in 2020. Together, CRM and CTR will form the Institute of Regeneration and Repair, ensuring that the site continues to be a global hothouse for regenerative medicine.

A recent legacy gift is set to support a Chancellor’s Fellowship in stem cell data science at CRM, a crucial commitment to a young researcher’s career that will allow them to blaze a trail in cutting-edge studies. In addition, the legacy will fund a stem cell biologist, tying into the University’s commitment to nurturing early research careers and ensuring that the Centre continues to attract talented researchers.

It may be some time until stem cell therapies are used routinely in healthcare, yet results such as those from Professor Newby’s trial and investment in regenerative medicine offer hope to people living with debilitating conditions. Thanks to the determined efforts of researchers and clinicians, stem cell research looks set to have a bright future in Edinburgh.

Related links

Centre for Cardiovascular Science

One health

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