According to the Centers for Disease Control, 600,000 Americans die of heart disease every year. But if a promising new stem cell treatment proves successful for heart attack patients like Encinitas resident Mark Athens, that number may start to drop.
Last August, Athens, 52, experienced chest pain while drinking his morning coffee. He didn’t think much of it then, or later that evening when the pain returned.
But when he awoke the next morning in a cold sweat, with severe pain crushing his chest, Athens knew he was having a heart attack.
After he was treated, Athens learned about an intriguing new stem-cell treatment that may help heart attack patients do something once thought impossible: regenerate dead heart muscle. Now, biotech company Capricor may be proving otherwise.
Capricor founder Eduardo Marbán discovered that the heart contains a type of stem cell that can turn into new heart tissue. While these stem cells can take care of everyday wear and tear in the heart muscle, there aren’t enough of them to repair major damage from a heart attack.
So Capricor takes these stem cells from donor hearts, grows more of them, and works with physicians to inject them into the coronary artery of a patient who has suffered a heart attack. The injected stem cells are intended to travel to the heart and support the growth of new, healthy muscle and reduce the damage from scar.
The remarkable treatment is being studied in a new clinical trial called “Allogeneic Heart Stem Cells to Achieve Myocardial Regeneration” (Allstar) at three centers, including Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla.
When asked if he would be interested in participating in the Allstar study, Athens agreed not only for his own benefit, but also because he realized the potential of the treatment to help others. He received the stem cells in late September, and so far he is doing very well.
It will take several months to determine if the treatment is successful. If it works, scar tissue should shrink and functional heart muscle should grow.
Study participants are randomized to cells or placebo and most will not know which they received. However, the first three study participants, including Athens, did receive the stem cells.
Scripps cardiologist Richard Schatz, MD, who performed Athens’ procedure, says the treatment showed considerable promise in an earlier, slightly different study that used the patient’s own cells after heart attack treatment instead of donor cells. “In patients who have received the stem cells, we’ve found that the amount of scar tissue had actually reduced in size six months later, while the healthy tissue grew,” said Schatz. “We’ve never seen that before.”
Schatz points out that donor cells, like donated blood, can be collected in advance and stored for use when needed, making them more practical and less expensive than the patient’s own cells.
A blood test can determine if a potential recipient might reject the donated cells.
Study participants must be over 18, have experienced a heart attack within the past 12 months and meet other requirements. To learn more about the Allstar trial, contact Heather Catchpole at 858-554-5258.
“Health Watch” is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps Health. For more information or for a physician referral, call 1-800-SCRIPPS or visit www.scripps.org.