If you have a heart attack today,your doctor may prescribe you a drug treatment that stops the damage to your heart muscle.
But they can’t give you anything that repairs or reverses that damage.
That could change with regenerative medicine, an exciting new area of research that has the potential to heal a damaged heart.
Dr. Kim Connelly was struck by the potential of regenerative medicine after he graduated from medical school and started seeing more patients living with diabetes and heart disease.
“It became clear that there were lots of areas where we had absolutely no treatments, and patients were dying of these diseases or were suffering heart attacks and strokes,” says Dr. Connelly, a cardiologist and Heart and Stroke Foundation-funded researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
By the time one of his close friends developed diabetes and kidney disease, Dr. Connelly realized there were no specific therapies available to treat him either. He made the decision to return to the lab to try and make new discoveries himself.
Growing new cells
The field of regenerative medicine has only been around for 20 years. In that time researchers have identified how to grow new, healthy heart cells from the patient’s own cells. Circulating within each of us, Dr. Connelly explains, “are specialized stem cells that can be taken out, modified and then reinserted back into our body.”
The hope is that injecting these new cells back into damaged areas of the heart muscle will improve its function by allowing the heart to repair itself from within.
All of this work takes time, cautions Dr. Connelly. “Building new cells from our own raw materials is a challenge, especially when you’re dealing with a mechanism as complex as the human heart.”
In lab research supported by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, Dr. Connelly has shown he’s able to reverse damage within individual human cells, by flipping a chemical “switch.” Now, with additional funding, he’s poised to conduct a clinical trial to see if the same results carry over when tested within a human patient.
If regenerative medicine lives up to its promise, it would be life-changing for the estimated 600,000 Canadians living with heart failure.
Heart failure is a chronic condition in which the heart muscle is damaged or weakened by disease and unable to pump blood efficiently. Almost every heart condition eventually leads to heart failure. Although therapies that improve and extend patients’ quality of life have improved significantly, there is no cure.
As Canada’s population ages and more people are diagnosed with heart failure, researchers like Dr. Connelly are hopeful that innovative research like regenerative medicine could one day offer a cure for heart failure.
“I really do believe research is absolutely vital to improving our current treatments and developing new treatments,” he says.
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