Myocardial infarction – heart attack – is no longer quite as wide-spread a killer as it once was, thanks to better medical technology, and a better understanding of how this condition arises. However, the fact is that patients who experience a heart attack are much more likely to die prematurely, usually due to complications arising from the development of scar tissue (infarct) from the heart attack. Stem cell therapy may be able to offer a way to reduce, or even reverse that scar tissue.
How Does Heart Attack Scar Tissue Kill?
In order to understand how stem cells can benefit heart attack (myocardial infarction) victims, it is important to know more about how the scar tissue affects the heart and reduces lifespan in the first place.
During a heart attack, blood flow is reduced to the heart muscle. This in turn kills heart cells. As those cells die, scar tissue is generated. The problem with this tissue is that it is thicker and less flexible than healthy heart tissue, and in patients with existing heart disease, this can lead to heart failure, arrhythmia and other complications. Eventually, it leads to death.
However, stem cell therapy may offer hope for those who have experienced myocardial infarction, and are currently living with the fear that goes hand in hand with the development of scar tissue in the heart.
In a study by Drs. Michael Chin and Charles E. Murry, published in the journal Future Medicine, the authors stated,
“Formation of cardiac scar tissue after myocardial injury is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in patients with heart disease… The heart is one of the organs with the least regenerative potential, and developing methods to regenerate viable and functional myocardium in areas of scarring is an area of intense scientific and clinical interest.”
The authors go on to note that there are several ways that such regeneration could be encouraged, including the transplantation of stem cells into the heart scar tissue (infarct) itself.
In another study published in the Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences, the authors state,
“Permanent loss of cardiomyocytes and scar tissue formation after myocardial infarction results in an irreversible damage to the cardiac function. Cardiac repair is therefore essential to restore function of the heart following MI… Cardiac tissue regeneration with the application of stem cells may be an effective therapeutic option.”
They go on to state that
“stem cell transplantation appears to be a safe and effective option for treating the postinfarcted heart. To date, there are several preclinical studies that have demonstrated the potential of stem cell-based therapy in the treatment of MI. These clinical studies have demonstrated a good safety profile, improved cardiac function, and favorable effects in patients with MI.”
How Can Stem Cells Help Heal Infarcts?
In order to understand how stem cells can help heal infarcts, it’s important to know more about what stem cells are. These are the building blocks of all cells, and they are interesting in that they can transform themselves into any other type of cell. They exist throughout the body naturally, in very high concentrations as infants, and then in declining numbers as we age. They form the core of our body’s regeneration system, although they are present only in very low numbers within the heart, which is one reason that scar tissue in the heart is so very dangerous.
By transplanting stem cells into the body, the number of stem cells in the heart greatly increases, allowing those cells to repair damage to the heart tissue and reduce the amount and rigidity of scar tissue. In short, stem cells can penetrate the scar tissue and either heal damaged tissue or transform into new myocytes themselves. In addition to repairing the heart muscle stem cells rebuild heart blood vessels and this further improves heart health.
The Type of Stem Cells Matters
It’s important to note that trials have occurred with two types of stem cells. However, they are not equally effective. Autologous stem cells are those that are harvested from your own body, and they cultured, and then injected into the area to be treated. The problem with autologous stem cells is that they are as old as your body, and they have accumulated damage (and potential toxins) that can reduce their effectiveness or even lead to rejection.
The second type is allogeneic stem cells. These are harvested from donated umbilical cord blood and tissue. Unlike your own stem cells, these are very young and energetic. They have not accumulated any toxins or mutations, and they are invisible to the immune system, so there is no risk of rejection or complications with transplantation.
Of the two, allogeneic stem cells are by far the most effective option, with the least number of side effects or potential negative contraindications.
How Are Stem Cells Transplanted?
The most common method of transplanting stem cells to treat myocardial infarcts is to inject them with a very fine needle directly into the scar tissue itself. However, there are also benefits to be found to having allogeneic stem cells infused throughout the body through an IV. Direct injection may offer faster healing of scar tissue, but general infusion can deliver healing of the heart tissue as well as an increase in the body’s overall stem cell count, which is important for overall health and wellness. The third way of stem cell administration for MI is infusion into the heart artery. More and more of data suggests that injection inside the cardiac muscle, infusion into cardiac artery or just an IV infusion lead to the same rate of heart healing. There is a tremendous cost and risk difference between those treatments. Your doctor should discuss your options with you and create a customized treatment plan based on your specific needs and health outcomes.
Scar tissue created by heart attacks does not need to be a death sentence. Stem cell therapy may provide the means to heal the heart and regenerate healthy tissue to replace damaged scar tissue. However, understand that these treatments are all experimental in nature, and there is no FDA-approved stem cell treatment option available today.