Latest research from the American Heart Foundation holds-out the tantalizing possibility that the umbilical cord is the home to stem cells that could treat the modern-day scourge of heart disease.

Published in the Foundation’s house journal, ‘Circulation Research’, the study suggests that umbilical cord stem cells not only increase heart muscle function in a patient, but play a role in considerably enhancing their quality of life.  Administered intravenously, the stem cell infusion or a placebo was given to a small sample of 30 patients. At the time of treatment, each patient’s condition was in a stable state.



When compared with those who were given the placebo, the hearts of the patients in receipt of the stem cell infusion showed significant and on-going improvement in their ability to pump blood. This improvement was maintained throughout the full year following the therapy. Further, patients experienced ongoing improvements in their ability to perform the normal functions of every-day life, with quality of life, also, improving throughout the period of the study. While many patients who are given organ transplants- or even blood transfusions- suffer major immune function complications, the patients on the stem cell trial experienced no adverse side effects at all.

The studies corresponding author, Dr Fernando Figueroa, professor of medicine at Chile’s Universidad de los Andes, said,  ‘’We are encouraged by our findings because they could pave the way to a non-invasive, promising new therapy for a group of patients who face grim odds.’’



Once diagnosed with heart disease, fully 50% of patients are expected to die within 5 years. While some may live past the 10 year mile-stone, the figure is barely 30%. Worldwide, it is estimated that over 37 million people currently suffer with the disease.  That figure is predicted to increase, significantly, over the next decade.

Heart disease is usually caused when the blood vessels leading to the heart become blocked or narrow significantly. A heart attack or angina often follows.  As the heart muscle is denied blood, it dies.  Once the heart fails, its muscles are greatly weakened and they fail in their job of pumping adequate blood round the body. There are existing drug therapies, which have had some success over the years.  However, their efficacy has always been questionable and they often result in the need for more invasive treatment, such as implanting mechanical aids directly into the heart or, the even more invasive, heart transplant.  



The use of human stem cells in research and in treatment has often raised ethical questions- and public anger.  However, the stem cells used in the American Heart Foundation’s study were all taken from the umbilical cords of babies taken to full-term. Unlike fetal stem cells, there are no ethical considerations in the use of what is, basically, a waste product.

While bone marrow cells have also been trialed, umbilical cord stem cells are more easily harvested and more readily available. With no ethical or immune system issues, the trial raises interesting possibilities.