WEDNESDAY, Sept. 27, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Instead of throwing away the umbilical cord after birth, new research suggests using this medical waste to potentially improve the lives of people with heart failure.
With parental permission, doctors used umbilical cords to harvest stem cells that were then injected into people with heart failure.
People who received those injections were monitored for a year, and were found to have an increase in heart muscle function. Study volunteers also reported positive changes in their day-to-day lives, regaining the ability to do things such as drive a car.
"Their quality of life really improved," said study author Dr. Fernando Figueroa. He's a professor and program director in translational research in cell therapy at the University of the Andes School of Medicine in Chile.
"A physician in Chile wrote us a very funny email after his infusion, saying how he felt more energy, the color of his skin changed, he was able to go back to work, and he was able to be with his wife," Figueroa said.
At least one expert suggested interpreting the study results with caution, however.
Dr. Mary Norine Walsh, medical director of the cardiac transplantation program at St. Vincent Heart Center in Indianapolis, said, "It's very encouraging, but the limitations of this study are that it was done in just a few patients and they were almost all men, and they were not that ill at baseline."
Walsh noted that because the study volunteers weren't very ill, it's not clear how patients would respond if they were sicker. She also pointed out that the study only had short-term data.
"But it is an interesting study because the investigators demonstrated that for some the end points in the trial there was an improvement for those patients that received stem cells compared to the patients who received the placebo," Walsh said.
The study included 30 patients, ages 18 to 75, who were receiving medication for heart failure, but were in stable condition.
The patients either received one intravenous infusion of stem cells from an umbilical cord or a placebo.
"The rationale behind our trial was to overcome two main hurdles that are facing stem cells today," said study co-author Maroun Khoury, a professor at the University of the Andes School of Medicine.
"The first is that many stem cell treatments require surgery to inject the cells into the heart muscles. With this, it was a noninvasive procedure where the patient had an injection, was monitored for two hours and then went home," Khoury said.
"The second is the variability. There have been a lot of clinical trials conducted where you are not able to see the outcome because they are using the cells of their donors, and the outcome will vary depending on the donor's cells," he explained.
"We decided to use one source of cells from an umbilical cord donation so the product is not a variable, it's constant, and the only variable is the patient," Khoury said.
The study authors were surprised and encouraged by the results.
Based on previous animal research they expected the stem cells to travel to the lungs.
Patients only had one injection, done in a peripheral vein. As expected, the stem cells traveled to the lungs, yet somehow heart function improved for an entire year, according to the study. Figueroa said the results were "kind of amazing."
No adverse side effects were found as a result of these injections.
The researchers plan to follow up with the study patients for three years to analyze the long-term outcome after one injection.
If the research continues to prove that umbilical cord stem cells are a viable option, Khoury said that they should be relatively easy to obtain. Most parents of newborns were happy to donate them when they learned they'd be used for a medical treatment, he said.
However, until that time, Walsh, who is also the president of the American College of Cardiology, encouraged heart patients to continue with their treatments.
"We have other therapies that can improve heart function and quality of life," she said.
"It's important for people to know that and take action and see their doctor if they feel ill. For many patients, our usual or standard therapy can be lifesaving," Walsh said.
The study was published Sept. 26 in the American Heart Association's Circulation Research.
Learn more about heart failure from American Heart Association.