The lead author of the study is Dr. Jorge Bartolucci, a professor at the Universidad de los Andes (UANDES) in Santiago, Chile, and Dr. Fernando Figueroa, a professor of medicine at UANDES, is the corresponding author.
The results - which have been published in the journal Circulation Research - were deemed "encouraging" by Dr. Figueroa. He says that the findings could improve survival rates for heart failure patients, which are currently quite disappointing.
Half of all heart failure patients are expected to die within the first 5 years after the diagnosis, and the 10-year survival rate is less than 30 percent. Worldwide, 26 million people are believed to live with the condition.
In heart failure, the heart's muscles weaken and can no longer pump blood adequately throughout the body. Worryingly, the threat of heart failure is increasing among people in the United States; the number of people affected is currently set at 6.5 million, and this is expected to rise by 46 percent by the year 2030.
The authors of the new study note that previous research has already looked into the potential of stem cells derived from bone marrow for treating heart failure, but they say that umbilical cord-derived stem cells have never been examined.
These are a more desirable avenue for treatment, the authors add, as they are more accessible, do not pose any of the ethical concerns that embryonic stem cells do, and are not likely to elicit a negative immune response.
Treatment proves safe and effective
In their small trial, Dr. Bartolucci and team divided 30 patients - aged between 18 and 75 - into two small groups: one received treatment, and the other received a placebo.
Patients in both groups had stable heart failure, which was appropriately treated with the standard drugs.
The stem cells used by the researchers were derived from umbilical cords, which were obtained from human placentas. These had been donated by healthy mothers who carried their pregnancy to term and had a cesarean delivery.
It was found that in the stem cell group, the therapy improved the hearts' ability to pump blood in the year after the treatment. The stem cell therapy also seemed to improve the daily functioning and quality of life of those treated.
No adverse effects or inflammatory immune responses were noted during the treatment, despite the fact that typically, patients who receive blood transfusions are prone to adverse immune reactions.
The treatment was "feasible and safe," the authors conclude, and it "resulted in a significant improvement in left ventricular function, functional status, and quality of life."
"These findings suggest [that the intervention] could have an impact on clinical outcomes, supporting further testing through large clinical trials," they add.
This type of stem cell therapy may be extremely beneficial to heart failure patients, say the authors, especially when compared with existing treatment options.
"Standard drug-based regimens can be suboptimal in controlling heart failure, and patients often have to progress to more invasive therapies such as mechanical ventricular assist devices and heart transplantation," explains Dr. Bartolucci.
"We are encouraged by our findings because they could pave the way to a noninvasive, promising new therapy for a group of patients who face grim odds."
Dr. Fernando Figueroa