'Incurable' heart patients given hope with HKU stem cell vessels
Patients with previously incurable heart disease have been given new hope by a pioneering University of Hong Kong study, in which stem cells have developed into new blood vessels to replace blocked ones.
Among 19 patients who had stem cells injected directly into their heart muscle, more than half had improvements in their heart functions, researchers said.
Six months after the operation, these patients could sustain exercise 20 per cent longer than before the operation; the performance of the nine patients in a control group had fallen 18 per cent six months later.
Cardiology Professor Tse Hung-fat said some patients with severe heart disease suffered from blocked vessels even after bypass surgery. Overseas studies show that about 10 per cent of patients fall into this category. 'They were originally incurable, but now they are given a new lease of life,' he said. 'It is a big step forward.'
Younger patients and those not suffering from diabetes would improve more, as the quality of their stem cells was higher, he said.
Although the results were encouraging, too few patients had undertaken the operation for scientists to draw a conclusion, Tse said.
The university is therefore embarking on another phase of the study, for which a donation of HK$2 million was set aside, which involves recruiting 90 patients from Hong Kong, Indonesia and Australia. One patient from Hong Kong and six from Indonesia had already been operated on, Tse said; results could be expected in two years.
The HKU study is among some 300 studies on stem cell treatments for heart disease, but Tse said his study was one of the most advanced.
Stem cells are capable of differentiating into various other specialised cells, and can replace damaged or aged tissue. They are most commonly obtained from bone marrow.
Professor Lee Sum-ping, dean of the faculty of medicine at HKU, said that in five to 10 years about 30 per cent of stem cell operations would be for diabetes patients, another 30 per cent for those suffering from spinal and bone injuries, 18 per cent for people with heart disease and 14 per cent for those suffering from brain and nervous system degeneration, such as Alzheimer's.
The university is also conducting stem cell research into eye treatments. Currently, if patients suffer from degenerative myopia in one eye, stem cells from the other eye can be transplanted - although that could lead to stem cell deficiency in the healthy eye.
David Wong Sai-hung, director of the Eye Institute at HKU, said that if both eyes were affected, stem cells from family members or dead bodies could be transplanted, but the body might reject these cells.
The institute is looking into the possibility of using stem cells extracted from the patient's skin. Wong said the study was still in an early stage, and hoped that the technology could be used on patients in three to four years.