Hearts created from stem cells could make transplants obsolete

Several human embryonic stem cell colonies. Credit: University of Michigan photo.

Australia is welcoming a major breakthrough in world technology to develop a human heart using a 3-D-process developed by Israeli scientists at Tel Aviv University.

Scientists used the method to develop a human heart about the size of a rabbit’s heart complete with blood vessels, ventricles and chambers and confidence is rising that developing a human heart using a patient’s own cells, is getting closer.

The prototype did not have a heartbeat but as development continues scientists believe that one day the new heart replacement process will make heart transplants obsolete.

The future is in the palm of a hand. The mini-heart created at Tel Aviv University. Lia Yefimovich, dpa/Associated Press

The world’s first heart transplant was performed in South Africa in 1967. The Heart Foundation says the first human heart transplant performed in Australia was at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney in 1968.

Since 1984 heart transplants have become a regular medical performance in Australia and there are heart transplant centres in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. By the end of 2006 more than 74,000 heart, 2800 heart-lung, 7300 single lung and 6000 bilateral lung transplants had been performed around the world. Australia’s contribution includes 1990 heart transplants, 169 combined heart and lung transplants and 1450 either single or double lung transplants.

Australia also produced a national hero in Dr Victor Chang, whose work in the field of transplants was hailed internationally.

So obviously a heart produced in a laboratory by scientists using a patient’s own cells would dramatically reshape scientific thinking and upset other potential methods.

Today, researchers are experimenting with stem cells to regrow or repair all types of tissue and organs due to disease, illness or injury. 

But with impressive strides in regenerative science, private clinics are raking in big bucks, touting often unproven stem cell cures.    

Sydney University Professor John Rasko, a clinical hematologist in gene and stem cell therapy said these clinics exploit regulatory gaps.  

“Such unregulated direct-to-consumer advertising – typically of cells obtained using liposuction-like methods – not only places the health of individuals at risk but could also undermine the legitimate development of stem cell-based therapies,” he blogged.  “… these clinics rely on patient testimonials or unsubstantiated claims of “improvement.” 

There are no official records of success or failure rates.

The mainstream public first became aware of the “miracle cure” after Superman actor Christopher Reeve broke his neck in a horse-riding accident in 1995 and became a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair and hooked up to a ventilator.

He believed the use of stem cells to repair spinal cord injuries would one day allow him to walk again. 

Reeve used his fame to advocate funding stem cell research and appeared before a U.S. congressional committee to plead his case.  But political and religious opposition remained fierce because embryonic stem cells are extracted from unused, in-vitro fertilized eggs.  They can potentially morph into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In contrast, adult stem cells maintain and repair the tissue in which they reside in the body. 

Reeve appears before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Nine years after his tragic accident, Reeve, 52, died from an infection caused by a bed sore. His dream was unfulfilled in his lifetime but his advocacy left its mark.  Since 2002 Australia has been engaged in stem cell research. This year, Stem Cells Australia and The University of Melbourne teamed up to receive $150m  from the federal government to explore new ways to treat conditions such as congenital heart disease, blindness, stroke, dementia and kidney disease.

In addition, there are regulated studies being conducted using cord blood and fetal tissue to treat spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s Disease.

“We are at the stage where we can now apply what we have learned in the lab to the clinic, impacting the future of medicine,” announced Melbourne University Professor Melissa Little, who heads the Stem Cells Australia program.

Stem cell therapy has also sprouted an unregulated private industry around the world. Doctors tout stem cell elixirs, with little or no scientific backing which can end in disastrous results, even death.  

A 2014 investigation by the ABC reported deadly missteps at Macquarie Stem Cells, a private American company with a clinic in Liverpool in south west Sydney. 

A 75-year-old female patient suffering from  Alzheimer’s Disease died shortly after a clinic doctor performed an experimental, fat-derived stem cell process.

Under this system  the stem cells grow into healthy brain cells with the potential to repair the neurologically damaged brain. There is little independent research that proves it works.

The female patient died before it could be determined if the radical, unregulated procedure had improved her memory.  

 A coroner later ruled her death was the result of “poor performance” by the lead doctor. He had allegedly failed to note she had been on blood thinners. 

“These experimental medical treatments should only be conducted within ‘strict, reviewable, scientifically recognised clinical protocols,” NSW state coroner, High Dillon wrote.  

Alzheimer’s researcher Professor Colin Masters at Melbourne’s Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health had testified at the inquest that “there have been no successful controlled human clinical trials to test the safety or efficacy of the infusion of stem cells… for cognitive impairment or dementia.” 

At present, the federal government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) part of the Government Department of Health, is set to tighten the reins on private clinics.   

“Infections, allergic reactions, rejection of the cells by your immune system as well as the development of cancer, are what can go terribly wrong, according to the TGA, that regulates medical devices, blood and blood products.  

The only established stem cell treatment approved in Australia is the bone marrow-derived haematopoietic stem cell, or HPC, for the treatment of leukaemia and disorders of the blood and immune system.  The stem cell transplant replaces the leukemia cells in a patient’s bone marrow with new ones that make blood.

The TGA also warned that undergoing a stem cell procedure at private clinics could be a money pit, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Still, there are plenty of fans. Most notably actor Mel Gibson.  There are YouTube videos in which the Mad Max movie star claims that a private stem cell clinic in Panama had restored the health of his ailing, elderly father.  

He said that  after careful study he ditched traditional medical treatment, including hip surgery, for his dad at the renowned Mayo clinic in the U.S. and opted for stem cell treatment at a private clinic in Panama.  

“He (his father) said it was phenomenal. I mean he said it’s one of the most incredible experiences he’s ever had,” Gibson gushed to American celebrity podcaster Joe Rogan in 2018. 

“…Everything from the prostrate to the hip to the kidneys to the heart to the lung. Just the recovery from a traumatic surgery [on his hip] at his age is like it’s a big deal.”  When National Rugby League hooker Nathaniel Peats suffered a potential career-ending knee injury in 2015, he opted for stem cell therapy rather than traditional surgery that would have benched him for months.