Westmead Hospital cardiologist’s innovative planned trial brings hope to those needing a heart transplant 

Heart disease is Australia’s leading cause of death, killing more than 18,500 people every year, which equates to one every 28 minutes.

For over 10 years, Westmead Hospital interventional cardiologist and head of the Cardiac Regeneration Laboratory at Westmead Institute for Medical Research, Associate Professor (A/Prof) James Chong, has been developing stem cell-based therapies for cardiac regeneration, and is investigating methods to develop new and effective treatments for repairing and regenerating the heart.

Today, 29 September is World Heart Day, a day which aims to increase awareness of cardiovascular diseases and how to control them to negate their global impact.

A/Prof Chong says that in the future, patients experiencing heart failure, including heart attack, could be treated with injections of stem cells derived from heart muscles, cardiomyocytes, directly into the injured region of the heart.

“In the lab we create stem cells that can become beating heart muscle cells,” explained A/Prof Chong.

We can deliver these cells into the injured heart which have shown to be able to integrate with the injured heart tissue themselves and that restores the pump function of the heart.”

One of the reasons A/Prof Chong’s research is so important, is currently, the only treatment available for patients with end-stage heart failure is a whole heart transplant and not everyone in need of a new heart is eligible for a transplant.

In 2021, there were only 112 heart transplants performed in Australia and many more than that in need of a new heart.

“The problem is that there’s never going to be enough donor hearts to go around and there never will be, especially with our ageing population,” said A/Prof Chong.

“I’ve had patients who would have really benefited from a heart transplant but due to age or other illnesses, they’re not an eligible candidate, so we hope that this stem cell therapy could be a game changer.

“We are using pluripotent stem cells which is different to the other stem cells that have been trialled before; it’s a “new generation” of stem cell therapy and so we are really excited and hopeful that they’ll yield better results than some older past therapies trialled.”

This new treatment would also involve a less complex and complicated procedure than a heart transplant. A/Prof Chong explained that initially, a patient would only have to undergo a “mini thoracotomy”, in other words a small open heart surgery, but then down the track a “minimally invasive percutaneous injection heart catheter” approach may also be possible.

The Australian-first trial is currently being planned with a submission to the Australian Therapeutics Goods Administration soon to be lodged.