Page last updated at 16:35 GMT, Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Stem cell 'gives my heart hope'

By Alex Steinitz
Producer, Horizon

Dean Third
Dean Third says the possibility of stem cell therapy has given him fresh hope

Six years ago, Dean Third was just like any other family man - then one afternoon everything changed. He suddenly collapsed.

"I never thought at all that I would be struck down with something that would affect my life in the way it did," he said.

Dean was diagnosed with a rare heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy - where the muscle cells of the heart slowly die off.

Over time, his heart had become enlarged and increasingly struggled to pump the blood around his body - until it hit crisis point.

Our goal is to try to build a heart in a lab
Dr Doris Taylor

Dean, 39, was lucky because he was found by his wife within minutes of collapsing.

Others have not been so fortunate, which is why this condition is sometimes referred to as a form of Sudden Death Syndrome.

'Fundamentally change'

But since his diagnosis, Dean's life has been severely restricted.

He used to be in the forces, but now he is unable to walk to the end of the street without great difficulty.

STEM CELL MILESTONES
1960s: Research begins on stem cells taken from adult tissue
1968: Adult stem cells used to treat immunodeficient patient
1998: US scientists grow stem cells from human embryos and germ cells, establishing cell lines still in use today
2001: Embryonic stem cell turned into a blood cell
2002: UK regulator issues two licences to begin research on embryonic stem cells

He has gone from being the main breadwinner for his four children, to having to survive on benefits.

His condition is stabilised on a cocktail of drugs, but he has to constantly increase the dose to achieve the same effect - and he is nearing the upper limits.

The only cure at the moment is a heart transplant. But there is a long waiting list, and what follows is a lifetime of taking harsh immuno-suppressant drugs.

To make matters worse, Dean has been told his condition was inherited.

His cousin died from it, both his uncles suffer from it, and there is a 50% chance he has passed the condition onto each of his children.

Now he thinks the emerging field of stem cell science might be his - and possibly his children's - hope for a future.

"You can only be optimistic. You know, it might not - I'm a realist - it might not happen in my lifetime, but to think that [scientists] are doing that and it'd be for my children's lifetime and my grandchildren's lifetime, is absolutely fantastic," he said.

Why stem cell science is giving these people a fresh hope for the future

Dean says he is given hope by people like Professor Anthony Mathur, a cardiologist at the London Chest Hospital.

Prof Mathur is investigating whether injecting a patient's own stem cells - taken from their bone marrow - directly in to the weakened muscles of the heart, can lead to an increase in heart function.

The outcome of the trial, which Prof Mathur is still recruiting for, will not be known until next year, but if results with humans follow those found with animals, Prof Mathur hopes the improvement will be equivalent to having a pacemaker fitted.

"I think what is really fascinating is that in the group of people who are predicted to continue to deteriorate because they have such bad heart disease, we do see people who get better," said Prof Mathur.

'Back to life'

To learn more about stem cell science, Dean went to a laboratory in Minneapolis, USA, where Dr Doris Taylor is attempting something from the realms of science fiction.

"Our goal is to try to build a heart in a lab," said Dr Taylor.

Dean Third
Dean Third travelled to Minneapolis to learn more about stem cell science

To do this, she takes a heart from a dead rat and strips away all its cells using detergents - leaving behind what is called an extra cellular matrix - a scaffold on which the heart can be rebuilt.

This scaffold is then re-seeded with stem cells taken from another animal and "brought back to life" as a beating heart in a test tube.

Dr Taylor's next step is to a human scale, using scaffolds created from pigs' hearts.

"The hope is that someone comes to us, they need a heart, we find a pig scaffold, we remove all the cells, we get stem cells from them, we put the cells back in, we grow the heart, we mature it, we clean it up and it's ready for transplant," she said.

This would eliminate the need for harsh anti-rejection drugs, because the cells would match their body, she added.

For Dean, seeing stem cell science in action was "amazing" and "inspirational" - but also "humbling".

"This could be the future that could cure me and get me back to the life that I had 10 years ago," he said.

Horizon: Fix Me will be broadcast at 9pm on Tuesday 27 October on BBC Two or watch it afterwards at BBC iPlayer .



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SEE ALSO
'Ethical' stem cell crop boosted
18 Oct 09 |  Health
Green light for US stem cell work
23 Jan 09 |  Health
The patients who stand to benefit
14 Jan 09 |  Health
Vatican denounces embryo research
12 Dec 08 |  Europe
Cancer hope over stem cell drug
24 Aug 09 |  Glasgow and West

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