A pilot study conducted in South Africa on the use of stem cells to repair the damaged heart muscle of four male patients with end-stage heart failure has been successful.

It might pave the way for a fully fledged trial next year.

Johan Brink, professor of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Cape Town medical faculty, who will present the results of the procedure at the SA Transplant Congress in Malelane, said: “We have subjective and objective evidence that all four patients are getting stronger. If this works we may be able to help many more people who would have needed heart transplants”.

Four male patients - aged 52, 65, 72 and 77 - with end-stage heart disease were enrolled into the study during 2004 and early 2005. All of them were unsuitable candidates for heart transplants.

“Satellite cells were isolated from a skeletal muscle biopsy by a patented process and cultured in an animal serum-free culture technique over a period of four to six weeks to produce up to 500-million cells in vitro,” said Brink.

Each patient received about 30 separate injections. No major complications occurred and all patients were discharged within four days of surgery.

Brink explained the results: “All four patients were alive at six months. Three had short readmissions for minor reversible strokes, anaemia and depression, but none for heart failure. In one patient, there were no readmissions following the initial treatment.”

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