Heart disease ranks as the number one cause of death among adults in the U.S., and each year approximately 785,000 Americans will experience their first coronary attack, while another 470,000 will experience a second heart attack, according to statistics compiled by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Not only does heart disease takes its toll on the health of Americans, the disease also significantly taxes the U.S. economy, as roughly $108 billion was spent on health care service, medications, or lost productivity due to heart disease in 2010 alone.
America’s growing obesity epidemic has only helped to contribute to the rise of heart disease related deaths in the country. Approximately one-third of all adults in the U.S. meet the standards for obesity, and two-thirds of all Americans qualify as overweight. Obesity ranks as one of the leading risk factors for the development of heart disease.
Despite how discouraging these rather alarming numbers seem, a recent breakthrough might well lead to a medical revolution that could potentially result in a cure for heart failure.
A Medical Discovery
In 2009, two patients with pre-existing heart conditions received a heart stem cell transplant as part of a University of Louisville medical trial. The first patient had previously suffered from two heart attacks and heart failure, while the second patient had suffered from even more severe heart damage, which had led to heart valve scarring and decreased function. Two years after undergoing their initial treatments, echocardiograms of both patients’ hearts showed normal heart function and a near total reversal of previous heart damage.
According to researchers, almost no visible evidence existed that the first patient had undergone any type of heart attack or heart failure, while the scarring in the second patient’s heart has greatly diminished in size, and his heart seems stronger than before. Follow up exams in 2012 showed continued improvement of both patients’ hearts, and researchers are cautiously optimistic that if subsequent trails show the same kind of results that for the first time doctors will have the ability to regenerate dead tissue in the heart. Shortly after the first two patients underwent the treatment, 18 other patients followed, and each has shown improved heart function and decreased scarring when compared to a control group.
An Improved Life
Unlike other research that had attempted to stimulate tissue growth in hearts by using stem cells from a patient’s bone marrow, researchers in the University of Louisville trial transplanted stem cells from the patient’s heart during bypass surgery. The benefit of using a patient’s own stem cells, explains researchers, is that the body doesn’t reject them, which can occur when using stem cells from a donor.
In most cases, patients who suffer from heart attack or heart failure never get better. Just as with any type of scar, once the damage has been done to the body, it never goes away. Once a patient suffers a heart disease related condition, recovery is generally marked by whether the patient’s condition gets worse, not by improvement. However, with this latest breakthrough, patients may actually have the chance to improve after suffering from heart failure, and begin to once again live a normal life. Both of the trial’s initial patients had reported an inability to walk or even move without experiencing loss of breath or chest pains. Now both report an ability to move around and stay active in a way they would have never thought possible again.
With only 20 patients having undergone the procedure, researchers are quick to point out that at least five more years of study needs to be completed before this type of procedure becomes an available medical treatment. But until that point, millions of Americans can take heart knowing that an end to heart failure may well be in sight.
Timothy Lemke blogs about the latest breakthroughs in health for Dr. Tiffany Goldwyn, a SW Portland dentist at Southwest Portland Dental.