Researchers at Mayo Clinic in Rochester are looking for new ways to repair a heart that doesn't beat properly in the days following a heart attack.
Traditionally, a person with an irregular heartbeat — a problem known medically as dyssynchrony — gets treated with a pacemaker to coach the heart back into normal rhythm.
But that's ineffective for about a third of patients, said Dr. Andre Terzic, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine.
That's why researchers at Mayo turned their gaze toward regenerative medicine and adult stem cells, the kind that can be guided to become most any type of tissue.
The teamhas demonstrated in a proof-of-concept experiment that heart rhythm disruptions after a heart attack can be fixed with regenerative medicine.
The researchers conducted early-stage research with mice, which means there's much study yet to be done. Although mouse studies do not always translate well for application into humans, the study, Terzic said, shows that it's possible to repair a heart's rhythm with stem cells.
"This extends the work that we are doing in defining what could be the most-useful applications for regenerative medicine," whose team has already begun clinical trials in humans and has the ability to coax a patient's own stem cells to become potentially reparative heart tissue.
The new study in mice "introduces — for the first time — stem cell-based 'biological re-synchronization' as a novel means to treat cardiac dyssynchrony," Terzic said in a Mayo announcement.
It will take time to translate what has been found into use for humans, Terzic said in an interview with the Post-Bulletin. But, in the meantime, researchers can begin looking for signs of re-synchronization in other ongoing research studies, he said.
Heart chambers must beat in synchrony to ensure the proper pumping, which is why the possibility of stem-cell treatment when pacemakers don't work seems so enticing.
"Typically one-third of patients do not respond favorably to pacing," Terzic said. "So there is an absolute 'must' to find a solution for that one-third."
Increasingly, he said, regenerative-medicine research considers the body's own ability to heal and looks for ways to boost it. The new study, published in The Journal of Physiology, could change regenerative medicine's concept of what is possible, if the current results get confirmed.
"We have developed essentially a new area of medicine of 'biological re-synchronization,'" Terzic said. "We take advantage of stem cells to repair, rather than taking advantage of a device just to pace…in other words, the solution is coming from our own cells."
Terzic said the study is but one example of what is essentially merging regenerative medicine with individualized medicine — picking a stem-cell or other regenerative-medicine treatment that will work best for a specific individual.
"We have seen major advances in what we call cardiac regeneration medicine.
we started initially as science fiction and eventually over the years it has become reality," Terzic said. "We have already brought it to patients."
Mayo in Rochester, Florida and Arizona have current clinical trials for patients dealing with health medical conditions like Lou Gehrig's disease, gastrointestinal issues, heart attack, angina, Crohn's disease, multiple-system atrophy, kidney disease and pediatric heart problems. Study continues with orthopedics (could a hip bone be triggered to heal instead of needing surgery?), diabetes (what if a patient's own cells could be triggered to become insulin-producers?) and neurology.
These days, patients of all ages who connect with Mayo directly or through their health provider can get referred to the Regenerative Medicine Clinic for consultation about options.
The idea is to fulfill the unmet needs of patients. Not to extend life, but to extend healthylife, Terzic said.
"That is the holy grail," he said.