Cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure, has ranked as the number one cause of death in the United States every year since 1900 except 1918, when the nation struggled with an influenza epidemic. Nearly 2600 Americans die of CVD each day, roughly one person every 34 seconds. Given the aging of the population and the relatively dramatic recent increases in the prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, CVD will be a significant health concern well into the 21st century.
Cardiovascular disease can deprive heart tissue of oxygen, thereby killing cardiac muscle cells (cardiomyocytes). This loss triggers a cascade of detrimental events, including formation of scar tissue, an overload of blood flow and pressure capacity, the overstretching of viable cardiac cells attempting to sustain cardiac output, leading to heart failure, and eventual death. Restoring damaged heart muscle tissue, through repair or regeneration, is therefore a potentially new strategy to treat heart failure.
The use of embryonic and adult-derived stem cells for cardiac repair is an active area of research. A number of stem cell types, including embryonic stem (ES) cells, cardiac stem cells that naturally reside within the heart, myoblasts (muscle stem cells), adult bone marrow-derived cells including mesenchymal cells (bone marrow-derived cells that give rise to tissues such as muscle, bone, tendons, ligaments, and adipose tissue), endothelial progenitor cells (cells that give rise to the endothelium, the interior lining of blood vessels), and umbilical cord blood cells, have been investigated as possible sources for regenerating damaged heart tissue. All have been explored in mouse or rat models, and some have been tested in larger animal models, such as pigs.
A few small studies have also been carried out in humans, usually in patients who are undergoing open-heart surgery. Several of these have demonstrated that stem cells that are injected into the circulation or directly into the injured heart tissue appear to improve cardiac function and/or induce the formation of new capillaries. The mechanism for this repair remains controversial, and the stem cells likely regenerate heart tissue through several pathways. However, the stem cell populations that have been tested in these experiments vary widely, as do the conditions of their purification and application. Although much more research is needed to assess the safety and improve the efficacy of this approach, these preliminary clinical experiments show how stem cells may one day be used to repair damaged heart tissue, thereby reducing the burden of cardiovascular disease.
In people who suffer from type 1 diabetes, the cells of the pancreas that normally produce insulin are destroyed by the patient’s own immune system. New studies indicate that it may be possible to direct the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells in cell culture to form insulin-producing cells that eventually could be used in transplantation therapy for persons with diabetes.
To realize the promise of novel cell-based therapies for such pervasive and debilitating diseases, scientists must be able to manipulate stem cells so that they possess the necessary characteristics for successful differentiation, transplantation, and engraftment. The following is a list of steps in successful cell-based treatments that scientists will have to learn to control to bring such treatments to the clinic. To be useful for transplant purposes, stem cells must be reproducibly made to:
Proliferate extensively and generate sufficient quantities of tissue.
Differentiate into the desired cell type(s).
Survive in the recipient after transplant.
Integrate into the surrounding tissue after transplant.
Function appropriately for the duration of the recipient’s life.
Avoid harming the recipient in any way.
Also, to avoid the problem of immune rejection, scientists are experimenting with different research strategies to generate tissues that will not be rejected.
To summarize, stem cells offer exciting promise for future therapies, but significant technical hurdles remain that will only be overcome through years of intensive research.