Regenerative Medicine and Heart Disease

Heart disease is one of the most commonly-observed serious diseases in the United States, affecting over ten percent of the adult population to some degree. Heart disease essentially results from either an extreme deterioration or overgrowth of the muscular tissue of the heart that pumps blood throughout the body, and typically has grave implications for patients: over fifty percent die within five years of diagnosis.

While there are approaches to managing heart disease that typically achieve some degree of success, the only true cure at this time is a transplant. Unfortunately, the demand for donor hearts greatly exceeds supply, and for all practical purposes, the vast majority of sufferers stand little or no chance of ever receiving a transplant. If the patient is fortunate enough to receive one, and the highly taxing and complex surgery proceeds without incident, she will need to maintain high doses of immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of her life to prevent the donated heart from being rejected by the body's immune system. It is not unusual for transplant patients to experience at least one episode of organ rejection within the first year after the transplant surgery, something for which invasive biopsies are often required to conclusively monitor, and ongoing management of immunosuppressive medications - side affects of which can include frequent infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney failure - is a critical part of care.

Beyond the implications for patients, the economic cost of heart disease and its management is substantial, with an estimated impact of over $32 billion per year. And while preventative approaches such as diet and weight management, regular physical exercise, and smoking cessation show some efficacy in reducing onset of the disease, age and genetic predisposition play a significant role, even in otherwise-healthy patients. 

In recent years, enormous advancements have been made in tissue regeneration approaches to heart disease using stem cells - the first of which successfully regenerated new cardiac muscle tissue over a donor heart "scaffold" that had first been cleaned of all of its diseased muscular tissue using a cocktail of detergents. Over the next few years, it's likely that we will see this approach used first to make myocardial "patches" from patients' own stem cells that will be used to replace diseased tissue in patients with heart disease, with reconstruction of entire hearts possibly within the next decade. This approach will eliminate the need for immunosuppressive therapy, and allow patients with transplanted tissue the opportunity to recover more rapidly following surgery and retain vastly greater function afterwards.