PUBLISHED: 1:15 PM on Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Stem cell study will target heart pain
Shands Jacksonville is the site of a national study to determine whether adult stem cells can be used to alleviate angina, a leading symptom of cardiovascular disease.

Angina is caused by blockages in the arteries that reduce blood flow - and oxygen - into the heart, triggering chest pain.

The 150-patient clinical trial, sponsored by Baxter Healthcare Corp., will use stem cells extracted from the patient's blood to potentially create new blood vessels in the heart and regenerate damaged heart tissue.

That then would help increase blood flow in the heart.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville and Shands are collaborating on the clinical trial, the cost of which wasn't disclosed.

"This clinical trial opens a new avenue of modern therapy for patients with coronary artery disease," said Marco Costa, a University of Florida cardiologist who is leading the trial at Shands.

The therapy has been proven safe in small groups of patients, but this is the first large-scale study to measure its effectiveness, Costa said.

The trial offers hope to the roughly 250,000 people in the United States who annually develop blockages in their coronary arteries that can't be treated by conventional procedures such as angioplasty or bypass surgery.

"What we're hoping is that these stem cells ... will be able to stimulate the growth of new blood vessels to bring more blood and oxygen to the heart muscle, so that these patients will have a better quality of life and less chest pain," said Gary Schaer, director of Cardiac Catheterization Labs at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, a site for the Baxter clinical trial.

The possibility of using stem cells to regenerate blood vessels and tissue in the heart is a "hot topic in cardiology," said George Pilcher, interventional cardiologist and director of Catheterization Labs at St. Vincent's Medical Center.

"If you can demonstrate that you could grow back heart [tissue] ... that has been damaged," Pilcher said, "it would just be huge."

The 12-month study will be conducted at up to 20 hospitals. Shands, which expects to study from 15 to 20 patients in Jacksonville, was picked because of Costa's expertise in cardiovascular research, said Jed Weiner, a Baxter spokesman.

As part of the project, participants will be given medication to trigger the release of bone marrow stem cells into the blood stream. Blood would be drawn from the patient and processed in a device that would isolate the stem cells needed to regenerate blood vessels and heart tissue, Costa said.

A high-tech diagnostic device would map the patient's heart three-dimensionally and identify the damaged areas into which the stem cells would be injected.

Despite the promise, it likely would be at least a decade before such therapy is widely available, Pilcher said.