Based on the most recent data from 2012/13, 63,200 Canadian adults had a first heart attack that year. According to heart pathologist Michael Laflamme, professor of laboratory medicine and pathobiology at the University of Toronto, about a quarter of these cases will progress to some degree of heart failure. Therapies don’t yet exist to treat these failing hearts.
“We can treat the symptoms, we can attenuate the disease process, but we don’t have really any way to replace the muscle that’s damaged in a heart attack other than to give somebody a whole new heart,” says Laflamme. “And we know there’s not enough of those to go around.”
During a heart attack, there is a blockage in the blood vessels that feed the heart, and downstream of that blockage, the heart muscle that loses access to blood dies. A major obstacle in heart repair is the scar tissue that eventually forms to replace the lost heart muscle.
Laflamme, also a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Medicine by Design, works with pluripotent stem cells that have the potential to repair the heart after a heart attack.
“Our vision is to use stem cells to repopulate or remuscularize that scar tissue, to make it back into functional muscle,” says Laflamme.
Laflamme can already make heart muscle from pluripotent stem cells, but every day his team works to make their process even better, and to continue to refine their cell therapy so that patients can benefit.
“This is what I consider big science, things that would have seemed like science fiction when we were starting this work back in 2002,” adds Laflamme. “I’m really excited that it’s become so tangible. We really would like to get to a first-in-human study with a new stem cell-based therapy for heart disease, in something like a 4-5 year time horizon.”
If successful, Laflamme hopes to bring this therapy to clinical trials in as few as 10 years, turning an idea that once sounded like science fiction into a mainstream therapy.