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Stem cells show promise for treating heart failure, study finds

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, April 25, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Dr. Catalin Toma
Dr. Catalin Toma

Stem-cell therapy involving bone marrow could revolutionize treatment for people struggling with heart failure, according to a study that included research from the University of Pittsburgh.

The clinical trial determined end-stage heart failure patients treated with stem cells harvested from their own bone marrow had 37 percent fewer cardiac events, including hospital admissions and deaths, than a placebo-controlled group. The three-year trial was performed at 31 medical centers throughout the United States and involved 126 patients.

UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh enrolled six patients in the study under local principal investigator Dr. Catalin Toma, director of interventional cardiology at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.

“This is very encouraging,” Toma said. “It's one of the first large studies looking at this type of patient population. This data will hopefully encourage physicians to seek out sites enrolling in the cell-therapy trials.”

Doctors drew bone marrow from patients and selected two types of stem cells, expanding them in a laboratory. The doctors then injected the stem cells into damaged areas of patients' hearts during a two-hour procedure.

The study was published online April 4 in the medical journal The Lancet and presented during the annual meeting of the American College of Cardiology in Chicago.

“For the last 15 years, everyone has been talking about cell therapy and what it can do,” said the study's author, Dr. Amit Patel, director of Cardiovascular Regenerative Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City. “These results suggest that it really works.”

People with heart failure have weakened hearts that are unable to pump blood through the body properly. About 5.1 million people in the United States have heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of people who develop heart failure die within five years of diagnosis.

In the trial, evaluations at one, three, six and 12 months after treatment showed that cell-therapy patients had fewer side effects and complications than the placebo group. After a year, researchers logged all cardiac events, including deaths and hospitalizations. Those treated with stem cells had fewer hospitalizations and a 37-percent reduction in cardiac-related incidents.

“This is the first trial of cell therapy showing that it can have a meaningful impact on the lives of patients with heart failure,” Patel said.

Toma said a more extensive clinical trial and additional data will ultimately determine whether the stem-cell therapy could serve as an alternative to heart transplantation and other forms of heart therapy.

“This is an important study that will stimulate the clinical research in the field, as well as further advances in cell-delivery technology,” Toma said.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or

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