Louis A. Cona M.D.
In this post, we explain the main causes of heart disease & the potential use of stem cells to help treat the condition.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide among men, women, and children. Over 17 million people die each year from heart disease, and millions more suffer from the symptoms regularly. For this reason, physicians have tried every avenue to come up with solutions to cure heart-related issues. With recent advancements in stem cell research, physicians are starting to turn toward the healing properties of stem cells for an answer.
Heart disease is caused by wear and tear on the heart muscles. Heart cells may become damaged over time due to a variety of factors including heart attacks, drug and alcohol use, associated diseases, and birth defects. Once these cells are damaged, heart disease progresses linearly, as the heart is unable to repair itself over time. A damaged heart cannot pump blood as effectively throughout the body. This results in a variety of conditions including increased blood pressure and lack of oxygen to cells around the body. The heart may try to compensate by stretching the heart walls or working harder, but this generally increases the issues already present.
Current treatments for heart disease range from transplanting parts of the heart or the whole organ in some cases, to the use of blood thinners and other drugs. These treatments seek to completely replace damaged tissue or make it easier for a damaged heart to function. However, these treatments can be very expensive, time-consuming, and limit the patient's quality of life.
Stem cells are cells that have not yet specialized in the body. They can become whatever type of cells they need to be, in a process called differentiation. Stem cells will find dead or damaged tissue and naturally replace the defective cells. This property has led modern medicine to turn to stem cells for a variety of conditions. Regarding heart disease, researchers have begun testing to use stem cells to effectively replace a heart's damaged cells with a patient's own stem cells. Researchers are currently looking at three different approaches to treatment. The first involves taking stem cells from a patient's own bone marrow and then transplanting them directly into the heart via catheter. The second involves using donated stem cells to create patches or grafts that can be applied to damaged areas of the heart, healing the tissue underneath. Lastly, researchers are now trying to reprogram cells within the heart to become stem cells and promote healing, bypassing the need for a cell transplant. Although these methods are very promising, the field of using stem cells to treat heart disease is very young.
However, trials so far have been promising with minimal side effects. Dr. Richard Lee of the Harvard Medical Centre has recently stated most of the stem cell therapies for the heart have been surprisingly safe, but long term effects are still a concern, adding most investigators think this is just a few years away.
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