UofL Physicians’ Dr. Bolli leads stem cell study for heart attack patients

Published on November 17, 2011

One of UofL Physicians’s esteemed cardiologists, Dr. Roberto Bolli, recently presented the exciting results of a study that found patients who suffered from heart failure because of a heart attack showed an average of 12 percent improvement in heart function one year after they were treated with their own stem cells.

Dr. Bolli, along with Dr. Piero Anversa at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School in Boston, conducted the trial, called “SCIPIO” – an acronym for “Cardiac Stem Cells in Patients with Ischemic CardiOmyopathy.”

Researchers removed cardiac stem cells from each subject during coronary bypass surgery at Jewish Hospital in Louisville. The cells grew in a lab, then were reintroduced into the area of the patient’s heart that was scarred by a heart attack. Besides better-than-expected heart function, Bolli and the research team also found that the size of the scarred areas had decreased — a result that seemingly begins to disprove the long-held belief that once scarring occurs, the heart tissue is forever dead.

Results of the trial were published Nov. 14 in The Lancet and presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in Orlando, Fla. They are the first report of administering subjects’ own cardiac stem cells in humans; previous studies have used stem cells harvested from bone marrow.

Bolli – who is lead author of The Lancet article and presenter of the data at the Scientific Sessions – says that the adult stem cell protocol could become one of the greatest advancements in cardiac treatment in a generation.

“The results are striking,” Bolli said. “While we do not yet know why the improvement occurs, we have no doubt now that ejection fraction increased and scarring decreased. If these results hold up in future studies, I believe this could be the biggest revolution in cardiovascular medicine in my lifetime.”

His colleague Anversa has been studying cardiac stem cells’ potential to regenerate myocardial cells damaged from heart failure since the 1990s. “Seeing these cells given successfully to very sick patients is the most rewarding experience that a physician-scientist can have in his or her lifetime,” said Anversa, noting that the work was a major team effort that involved several senior members in both his and Bolli’s laboratories.

The SCIPIO trial was funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. The researchers reiterated that these findings are preliminary and larger-scale studies must be undertaken before the therapy can be widely used.

Bolli already is looking forward to a larger study, he said. “We plan to apply for funding to conduct a Phase II multi-center trial,” he said.

This revolutionary study has been covered by many national and international media outlets. To a view a roundup of the coverage, visit the University of Louisville's Department of Medicine website.