German scientists have promising results from an experimental treatment to mend a broken heart. The treatment involves taking a heart-attack patient's bone-marrow cells, and injecting them into the arteries of the patient's heart.
The job of cells in the bone marrow is primarily to make new blood cells. But if you inject bone marrow cells into a heart that isn't beating so well, something in the bone marrow seems to make it beat better. At least that's what happened in animals.
Andeas Zeiher and his colleagues at the University of Frankfurt wanted to see if the same thing would happen in humans.
Small studies suggested it would, so he set up a larger study. Two hundred heart attack patients were divided into two groups. One group got their own bone-marrow cells injected into their heart blood vessels, the others got an injection, but it contained no cells. Zeiher then measured how well the heart pumped four months after the injections.
"In the control group receiving placebo, so no cells," Zeiher says, "there was a minor improvement by roughly 3 percent in absolute percentage points. And in the cell-treated patients, the improvement was absolute 5.5 percent."
That's a pretty modest improvement. But as Zeiher reports in the New England Journal of Medicine, it's not just that the patient's hearts pumped better. Zeiher says that after one year, the patients getting bone-marrow cells had fewer heart problems.
At Johns Hopkins Medical School, Joshua Hare is also working on a therapy that would use bone-marrow cells to treat heart patients. Hare says other besides Zeiher have shown that bone marrow cells can improve a damaged heart's pumping ability.
"The next step in the development of a therapy is to show that something actually makes people feel better or live longer," Hare says. "And that is what he showed in this study."
Zeiher is planning a new study of 1,200 patients to confirm the results.
But if Zeiher is going full speed ahead, Ketil Lunde has results that are less encouraging. Lunde is at National Hospital of Norway. He also has a report on bone-marrow cells in this week's New England Journal of Medicine.
Like Zeiher, he had two groups: one that received cells, and one that didn't. And like Zeiher, Lunde looked for a change in ability of the heart to pump.
"We found no difference between the groups," Lunde says.
He says the German group may have seen an improvement because they studied more patients.