Funding Will Help Kentucky Researchers Battle Heart Disease

Apr 9, 2012

Research being done in Kentucky to treat one of the great health crises of our time is getting a major boost. Monday the University of Louisville announced a new seven year, $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health aimed at finding cures for cardiovascular disease.

The money will go toward creating at U of L one of seven regional centers that will be part of the Cardiac Cell Therapy Research Network. The work done within that network will continue current research efforts at U of L involving cardiac stem cells.

Here's a quick and basic explanation of how cardiac stem cells work: researchers in Louisville are harvesting heart tissue from adult patients who have suffered heart failure and heart attacks. Cardiac stem cells are isolated from that tissue, the stem cells are grown in a lab, and those healthy stem cells are then re-infused into the patient’s heart.

So far, many of those who have received the stem cell infusion are showing significant improvement in heart function.

"This next round of funding is for a clinical trial of new stem cell therapies," said Dr. Roberto Bolli, the lead researcher and chief of the division of cardiology at the University of Louisville. "It's a very prestigious grant because we are going to be part of a network of institutions that is supported by the federal government. We've been selected from about 30 applicants, with only seven of them ultimately chosen."

The other six sites for the Cardiac Cell Therapy Research Network are Stanford, Texas Heart Institute, Minneapolis Heart Institute, and the Universities of Florida, Miami, and Indiana. Those institutions will be working alongside their counterparts in Louisville to advance the study of adult stem cell therapies targeting patients with cardiovascular problems such as heart failure.

"That's one of the biggest causes of mortality and morbidity in the United States. There are six million Americans with heart failure , and their outlook is usually quite dismal despite all the medical advances. So we're still looking for a treatment that can materially affect the prognosis of these unfortunate patients," said Dr. Bolli. 

The new research at U of L will also target peripheral arterial disease, a condition in which there’s insufficient blood flow to the legs. Patients suffering from the disease often can’t walk, and even sometimes lose their legs.

Dr. Bolli says the new seven-institution research network being created by the NIH funding will address all the major diseases of the cardiovascular system.

Bolli—a native of Italy--told WKU Public Radio today that it’s “exhilarating” to be part of an effort to treat one of the great health problems of our generation. Still, he admitted he sometimes thinks about the possibility of failure when it comes to these upcoming clinical trials involving adult stem cells.

"I think about it all the time. Even if you try to select your projects and your hypothesis very carefully, and you only study things that have a strong rational and are supported by data and evidence, even in those cases most of our hypotheses turn out to be wrong," said Bolli.

But Dr. Bolli says he feels optimistic because of the nature of this project. He points out it’s a seven year study, where at any point researchers will be studying multiple stem cell types.

Another advantage is the collaborative nature of the Cardiac Cell Therapy Research Network. Researchers at the University of Louisville will now have the opportunity to have their results replicated by their colleagues at other institutions within the network.

Replicating studies in multiple locations with a large number of patients is necessary for researchers to ultimately determine which findings can be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval.