Ireland co-ordinating EU-funded project on how to revitalise a failing heart
02 June 2015
A consortium led by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and the new Science Foundation Ireland centre Amber is carrying out an €8.7m EU-funded research project into heart disease. Called Amcare (Advanced Materials for Cardiac Regeneraton), the group involves 10 partners from five European countries and the funding is part of the EU’s Framework Programme 7. The Amcare programme will carry out research to develop natural materials and new surgical devices to enhance the delivery of the body’s own stem cells to the heart to promote healing after a heart attack and prevent premature death.
The therapies being developed will replace heart cells that die due to the reduced blood flow that occurs during a heart attack, with new healthy cells derived from stem cells that come from the patient’s own bone marrow.
Amcare is co-ordinated by Dr Garry Duffy, Department of Anatomy and Tissue Engineering Research Group, RCSI and Amber investigator: “Regenerative medicine and stem cell therapies have the potential to revolutionise the treatment of patients who have suffered a heart attack, and through Amcare we will develop new technologies to enhance stem cell therapies for these patients by increasing targeting and ease of delivery using advanced biomaterials.
“Current interventions don’t address the degeneration that can occur after a heart attack. You need other types of therapies to help with those.”
The project’s work focuses on the delivery of stem cells to regenerate the damaged muscle. While such approaches are already being trialled, Amcare intends to take the technique another step ahead by improving the heart wall’s uptake of the stem cells.
The partners co-operating in the project are developing materials that will boost the cells’ chances of survival and keep them fixed in the targeted area. They are also designing surgical devices that will enable surgeons to position these materials with their load of stem cells in or on the patient’s heart. The cells themselves are extracted from fatty tissue donated by adults undergoing liposuction.
A sticky problem…
“The heart’s main function is to pump blood around the body, but to do that it requires a blood supply itself. If that blood supply is cut off, the heart doesn’t receive nutrients or oxygen. The result is a heart attack or myocardial infarction, which causes cell death in the tissue,” Duffy explains.
Over time, this damage can spread, he adds, gradually reducing the organ’s ability to pump sufficient amounts of blood — particularly in situations where physical effort is involved. “The heart no longer has the reserve to increase output,” Duffy says. “Of course, this doesn’t happen for every patient.” The condition can develop if the damaged area is particularly large.
Stem cells can reverse the damage to the muscle, but keeping them in place long enough to do their thing is a challenge. “The heart is always beating,” says Duffy, “so if you inject something, it is going to be squirted right back out.” A promising technique currently being tested enables up to 20 per cent of the injected stem cells to take hold, he notes.
Amcare is hoping to achieve a retention rate of 50 per cent, which would significantly reduce the number of stem cells needed for successful treatment. To do so, it delivers the cells in a biomaterial that adheres to the heart wall.
This material also contains a substance that promotes cellular growth. It keeps the transplanted stem cells healthy in the oxygen- and nutrient-deprived area they are meant to revitalise and protects the local heart cells from further degradation.
The delivery medium is available as a gel or as a patch, to be placed on the inside of the heart wall or on the outside, respectively. Both are inserted by means of minimally invasive surgery using dedicated medical devices also designed by the project, and dissolve within a few days. The gel is injected into the heart with a catheter that is put into the patient’s groin and led up through the blood vessels. The patches are deployed through a small incision between the ribs.
Amcare will end in October 2017. By this time, the partners intend to complete the development of the technique along with the associated materials and instruments. Clinical trials could begin the following year, and the new therapy could then be made available to patients within another four years or so, says Duffy.
This is an exciting prospect in itself, but heart attack survivors are not the only ones who stand to benefit. The concept could be adapted to other situations where retention of therapeutic agents is an issue — such as the transplantation of pancreatic cells for the treatment of diabetes. Another EU-funded project, named Drive, will pursue this promising line of research.
- Project acronym: AMCARE
- Participants: Ireland (Coordinator), Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, Belgium
- Total cost: € 8 694 507,6
- EU contribution: € 6 795 349
- Duration: November 2013 – October 2017