Regenerative Medicine: Renovating the Body
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Dr. Duncan Stewart and a team at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute are at the forefront of a new frontier in health research and the quest for better ways to cure disease. They are leaders in a revolutionary new field called regenerative medicine, which seeks to repair and rebuild damaged tissues and organs using the body’s own building blocks, including stem cells, genes and biomaterials.
“All of us have stem cells in nearly all organs of the body, but in the adult they appear to have only limited regenerative abilities,” says Dr. Stewart. “The aim of our research is to “rejuvenate” these cells and enhance their activity to repair damaged tissues and reverse the effects of disease.”
Focus on the Heart
One area of opportunity that Dr. Stewart and his team are investigating is how regenerative medicine can help patients recover from heart attacks.
Heart attack is a common problem caused by a blockage in an artery that supplies blood to the heart. When caught early, a heart attack can usually be stopped by opening up the blocked artery before a significant amount of heart muscle is lost; but unfortunately, even when this is accomplished early, many patients still suffer from large areas of damage that lead to scarring of the heart. This interferes with the pumping ability of the heart, leading to heart failure and other complications which can result in poor quality of life and early death.
Optimism for the Future
What if we could harness our own stem cells to improve healing after a heart attack by reducing the amount of scarring and replacing the damaged area with healthy new heart tissue? That is the promise of regenerative medicine and it is closer than you may think. Dr. Stewart has already shown that the concept works remarkably well in laboratory models; within the next year he will launch a clinical trial to test this approach in 100 heart attack patients in partnership with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. Stem cells will be collected from each patient’s blood and then enhanced in the laboratory by addition of a gene that is critical for their regenerative activity. The enhanced cells will then be injected into the same patient’s heart to hopefully repair the damage and make the heart healthy again.
Dr. Stewart is anxious for the study to begin, and optimistic about its possible results. He is also excited about the many other regenerative medicine projects at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, which are showing promise in areas such as muscle disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, blindness and spinal cord injury.
“I believe that in the near future, regenerative medicine will play an increasingly vital role in the care of our patients who are suffering from organ damage and failure,” says Dr. Stewart. “I also believe that The Ottawa Hospital will be at the forefront of this transformation in health-care, with Ottawa patients among the first to benefit.”