Aug. 30, 2010 (Stockholm, Sweden) -- Giving people with chronic heart failure injections of their own bone-marrow stem cells appears to improve their heart function and extend their lives, new research suggests.
The benefits of the stem cell treatment were apparent within three months and persisted for the five years the patients were followed, says researcher Bodo-Eckehard Strauer, MD, of Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf, Germany.
But the 391-patient study is one of the biggest tests to date of stem cell therapy for heart disease -- and the first to show that the treatment cuts the risk of death in chronic heart failure, Strauer tells WebMD.
The treatment "has almost no risks and is effective when used on top of other treatments for chronic heart failure," he says.
The findings were reported here at the European Society of Cardiology Congress.
Stem Cells and Scarred Heart Tissue
"The hope is that by injecting stem cells into the scarred area, you will bring life back to that area and induce healthy muscle," says American Heart Association spokeswoman Mariell Jessup, MD, medical director of the Penn Heart and Vascular Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Stem cells are at an early stage of maturation and therefore have the potential to become many different types of cells, including those in the heart muscle.
Treatment With Stem Cells
In the study, bone marrow stem cells were taken from the area at the top of the patient’s pelvic bone. Then they were processed in the lab in such a way as to allow them to be injected into the scarred heart muscle.
Nearly five years after the study started, seven of the 191 patients who had the stem cell treatment had died vs. 32 of 200 patients who did not have the treatment -- a substantial difference.
The stem cell treatment improved the heart's ability to pump blood and restored blood flow to oxygen-starved heart muscle. Patients were able to exercise more. They also reported improved quality of life, Strauer says.
No patient experienced side effects, he says. All patients continued to receive optimal medical treatment throughout the study.
"There's been ongoing excitement about using stem cells to treat heart disease for some time and this study certainly adds to it," Jessup tells WebMD.
But the therapy is not ready for prime time, she says. One of the reasons: In the study, people knew whether they were getting the stem cell treatment, she says.
"It's not like the traditional randomized, controlled trial where people don't know whether they are getting the experimental treatment. That's what we really need," Jessup says.
Also, there may be "some increase in potentially life-threatening [irregular heartbeats]. You can't discount that and say there are no risks," she says.
This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.