Good News About Heart Attacks

Episode: 
18

You never know when or where you could have a heart attack. If it happens on vacation, far from home, hospitalization and recovery can be terrifying, strange, or lonely. But, if I’m going to have one while traveling, I’d like to be in Houston.

Researchers at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston have started Phase II of a stem cell trial that offers amazing hope for heart attack patients. Let me explain.

Stem cells are cells that are undifferentiated; that means they can grow into any of more than 200 types of cells. One goal of stem cell therapy is to induce these cells to grow into a specific kind of cell in order to repair damaged tissue. There are two basic sources of stem cells: the human embryo, and the human being after the embryonic stage. These adult stem cells are found in cord blood, amniotic fluid, and in tissue throughout the human body, such as bone marrow, fat, baby teeth, and the lining of the nose.

Some scientists claim that adult stem cells have limited potential, and want to continue embryonic stem cell research. But, human embryos must be destroyed to access their stem cells. Adult stem cells can come from a volunteer or the patient’s own body.

The evidence shows that adult stem cells are effective. In just one of scores of medical breakthroughs, adult stem cells are working with impressive results for acute heart attack patients. After a heart attack, muscle cells die within minutes. According to Dr Ali Denktas, one of the researchers, if stem cells are given within 5 to 10 days after the attack, “they nest themselves in the heart and the heart improves. But, why it improves is debatable”[1] he says. The stem cell patients recover more quickly, they have lower risk of a second heart attack, and their overall condition improves.

Why adult stem cells work to repair heart muscle may still be a mystery. But an analogy from a friendly scientist might be helpful: Embryonic stem cells seem to act like two-year-olds, refusing to do what they’re supposed to, triggering tumors and other problems. Adult stem cells act more like mature adults: “Hey, there’s an injury over there. Let’s get to work and fix it!”

As Christians, we can commend this ethical advance of biomedicine. We can also affirm the source of the stem cells used to treat heart attack patients in the clinical trials. They came from adult volunteer donors, not embryos who were destroyed. In this case, experimental treatment for heart attack patients stands on solid moral ground.

So, why would I want to be in Houston? That’s where the next phase of trials is going on. But, I’d also like to wait a few years. Right now, the patient doesn’t know if he’s received a placebo or the stem cell drug. Some day, the therapy may be available to every patient.

And that’s the good news about heart attacks.


[1] “Researchers Launch Phase II Trial of Stem Cells and Acute Heart Attack.” Science Daily Dec. 8, 2009. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091208153151.htm.

 

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