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Scientist honoured by the Vatican on verge of stem-cell breakthrough

Professor Silviu Itescu

A scientist honoured by the Vatican for his work in the field of adult stem cell research is close to producing a therapy to treat congestive heart failure – the biggest killer in the industrialised world.

Professor Silviu Itescu, the chief executive of Mesoblast, an Australia-based regenerative medicine company, is pioneering a therapy that requires a single injection of 150 million adult stem cells into the heart – and no conventional surgery.

The scientist last year received the inaugural Key Innovator Award from the Pontifical Council for Culture for his leadership and ingenuity in translational science and clinical medicine in the field of adult stem cell therapy.

His work is identifying huge potential for a wide variety of therapies without any of the “ethical constraints” incumbent in destructive stem-cell research on human embryos.

The breakthrough in the quest for a heart failure therapy gives new hope for “end-stage” patients with the most severe form of the condition and who rely on external machines to pump blood around the body which are costly and uncomfortable for the patient.

Final phase trials on 120 heart disease sufferers follow a successful earlier trial on 30 patients which showed that the therapy worked safely on a small number of patients.

Experts said that if the larger trial proves to be an equal success then the first stem cell-based therapy to treat advanced heart failure – known scientifically as “class IV” failure – could be on the market in six years.

It will mean that patients so ill that they need either transplants or mechanical pumps fitted or they will die will instead have the chance of a normal life because the adult stem cells would have regenerated their damaged tissue.

Scientists hope that it will add years to the lives of patients who might otherwise be expected to die soon.

Prof Itescu, who is not a Catholic, said: “If we can reduce the risk of mortality we can talk about a valuable approach to lengthening and improving quality of life.

“This will be achieved by addressing the number one cause of mortality in the industrialised world – congestive heart failure.”

British stem-cell expert Chris Mason, Professor of Regenerative Medicine Bioprocessing at the University College London, said the trial was “exciting”.

He said: “This is a well-designed study. This company has a very strong track record of producing high quality clinical data, for good clinical trials and for manufacturing quality stem cells.

“There isn’t any therapy for heart regeneration. This is exciting because it’s the closest there is. It is the most advanced.”

The company is also in the final stages of developing an injection of stem cells to treat chronic congestive heart failure on patients who not yet at the advanced stage but who have suffered “class II or III heart failure”.

About 500,000 people in Britain suffer from heart failure each year, with 200 receiving new hearts in transplant surgery.