A promising method to repair damaged hearts in children

Researchers at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago have published an important paper which describes the potential of using stem cell therapy to repair hearts in children with congenital heart disease.

The study, published in this month’s issue of Circulation (the journal of the American Heart Association), investigates the presence of stem cells in the hearts of these children and how those stem cells might be used therapeutically in the future.

Author Sunjay Kaushal, surgeon in the Division of Cardiovascular Thoracic Surgery at Children’s Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine says that for children with congenital heart disease, stem cell therapy has the potential to replace heart transplants and other types of invasive therapies in the future.

“Due to the advances in surgical and medical therapies, many children born with cardiomyopathy or other congenital heart defects are living longer but may eventually succumb to heart failure,” said Kaushal. “This project has generated important pre-clinical laboratory data showing that we may be able to use the patient’s own heart stem cells to rebuild their hearts, allowing these children to potentially live longer and have more productive lives.”

Kaushal and his colleagues obtained stem cells from patients ranging in age from newborn to thirteen years who were receiving routine heart surgery and studied them in various experiments. The cells were found to be most abundant in newborns, and then rapidly decreased with age. The location of the heart which contained the most stem cells was the upper right chamber, called the right atrium.

Cultured stem cells were functional and more importantly, the cells exhibited regenerative qualities when injected into rats with damaged hearts.

Most heart stem cell studies have been performed with damaged adult hearts. Kaushal’s study is the largest and most systematic study done on children so far.

“Heart disease in children is different than heart disease in adults,” said Kaushal. “Whereas adults might suffer heart failure from coronary artery disease or atherosclerosis, heart failure in children primarily occurs because they acquire cardiomyopathy or have a congenital condition in which the heart chambers are small or in the wrong position causing the heart to pump inefficiently. The potential of cardiac stem cell therapy for children is truly exciting,” he said.

Pending FDA approval, the group hopes to start clinical trials this fall.