Stem cells in fat may help repair damaged hearts

By Laura Ungar
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You might think fat is bad for your heart.

But a growing group of scientists says that's not always true.

The same stuff that can make you pudgy around the middle and clog your arteries, they say, might also heal your damaged heart.

Inside a person's own fat are stem cells that they say can limit the loss of heart function after a heart attack and repair heart failure damage. These cells could someday become a new weapon in the fight against heart disease, which kills more than 400,000 Americans a year.

"For eons, fat has been considered something that is bad," said Stuart Williams, scientific director of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, a partnership between the University of Louisville and Jewish Hospital & St. Mary's HealthCare, and one of the leading researchers in the field. "But God made love handles for a reason."

More than 300 scientists from around the world, including in Virginia, are studying the fat-derived stem cells for various applications. About eight years ago, researchers began sharing their knowledge by forming the International Federation of Adipose Therapeutics and Science Society, or IFATS.

Fat-derived stem cells are now being tested on cardiac patients in Europe.

Six-month results from a 14-patient heart attack trial in the Netherlands and Spain showed not only a reduction in the size of the heart injury but also improvements in the amount of blood supplied to the heart muscle and the amount of blood the heart can pump.

Data from a second trial, a 27-patient chronic heart disease study in Spain, showed a reduction in the amount of damage in the left ventricle. It also showed that patients receiving stem cells had better oxygen consumption and improved ability to perform physical activity.

Williams and other U.S. researchers have shown success in mice and plan human trials in the next couple of years. But even if those trials are successful, they say it will be several years before treatments based on fat-derived stem cells are widely available.

Erin Peiffer of Eldersburg, Md., said she's excited about the possibilities.

In 2001, she received a diagnosis of congestive heart failure after feeling a rattling sensation in her chest while doing water aerobics. She learned that her heart's left main artery was 99 percent blocked. She was 39 at the time, with no risk factors for heart disease except high cholesterol.

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