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New therapeutic approach for regenerating cardiac muscle after a heart attack

(Vienna 19th June 2012) After a heart attack, the cardiac muscle is often damaged. Cardiac muscle is extremely limited in its ability to repair itself. There are in fact stem cells which have a regenerative effect for the cardiac muscle, however after a heart attack these no longer work.  A team of researchers at the MedUni Vienna's Institute of Vascular Biology and Thrombosis Research has coordinated an EU project that has now been finalised and in which a therapeutic approach has been developed to “stimulate” these regenerative properties.

Heart attacks are one of the biggest health problems affecting modern society – around 15 million people suffer them every year. The narrowing of arteries, for example as a result of atherosclerosis, causes myocardial ischemia to develop – a lack of oxygen to the heart tissues. This can subsequently cause a heart attack. One major problem is the fact that, after a heart attack, the cardiac muscle has very limited options for regenerating itself. Scarred tissue results in reduced contractility and causes the heart to beat irregularly. All this places even more stress and strain on the already-damaged heart muscle and can ultimately lead to total heart failure.

“In severe cases, the only option currently available is a heart transplant," says Erhard Hofer from the Institute of Vascular Biology and Thrombosis Research (Centre for Physiology and Pharmacology), who has coordinated the EU project entitled "Infarct Cell Therapy" for three years. The study involved developing a new therapeutic approach via in vivo studies that triggers the cells to form blood vessels and regenerate the cardiac muscle function.

Combinations of two growth factors were used with an endothelial stem cell and a stem cell made from fatty tissue in an algal matrix, a gel-like substance made from seaweed extract, and were injected or fed in via a catheter – with positive outcomes for the regeneration of cardiac muscle by the stem cells. Says Hofer: “On the strength of this discovery, our consortium is now planning a clinical trial in order to verify the results in clinical practice.”

The project partners

As well as the MedUni Vienna, one of the key institutions involved, the University of Leuven (Belgium), the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain), the University of Tel Aviv (Israel), the University of Cologne (Germany), the Ben Gurion University of Negev (Israel), EuroBioSciences GmbH (Germany) and VivoCellBiosolutions GmbH from Graz were also participating in the EU project.