Heart stem cells from children with congenital heart disease might be able to rebuild the damaged heart.

The February issue of the journal Circulation (a journal of the American Heart Association) contains a study that shows that heart stem cells from children with congenital heart disease were able to rebuild the damaged heart in the laboratory.

A surgeon in the Division of Cardiovascular Thoracic Surgery at Children’s Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Sunjay Kaushal, MD, PhD, headed the study. Kaushal believes these results show tremendous promise for the growing number of children who suffer from congenital heart problems. With this potential therapy option these children may avoid the need for a heart transplant. Kaushal said, “Due to the advances in surgical and medical therapies, many children born with cardiomyopathy or other congenital heart defects are living longer but may eventually succumb to heart failure.” He continued, “This project has generated important pre-clinical laboratory data showing that we may be able to use the patient’s own heart stem cells to rebuild their hearts, allowing these children to potentially live longer and have more productive lives.”

The scientists obtained cardiac stem cells from patients who ranged in ages from a few days after birth to 13 years old. All patients were scheduled for routine congenital cardiac surgery. Their findings show that the highest number of heart stem cells were found in neonates and then rapidly decreased with age. The upper right chamber of the heart (right atrium) contains the highest number of these stem cells. These cells also showed an ability to grow in culture and form all the heart-based structures that could be used to repair a damaged heart. Up until now, heart stem cell studies have largely focused on diseased adult hearts. This study is the first and largest systematic study to focus on children.

“Heart disease in children is different than (sic) heart disease in adults,” said Kaushal. “Whereas adults might suffer heart failure from coronary artery disease or atherosclerosis, heart failure in children primarily occurs because they acquire cardiomyopathy or have a congenital condition in which the heart chambers are small or in the wrong position causing the heart to pump inefficiently. The potential of cardiac stem cell therapy for children is truly exciting,” said Kaushal. Pending FDA approval, Kaushal hopes to begin clinical trials with children in the fall.