It's possible to repair heart tissue and thus reverse heart failure by injecting adult bone marrow stem cells into skeletal muscle, a study shows.  Researchers at the University of Buffalo used an animal model to demonstrate that a non-invasive procedure actually increased heart cells, called myocytes, by two-fold and reduced heart tissue injury by 60 percent, according to a news release from the University of Buffalo.

And that's not the only promising news. The therapy improved the function of the heart's left ventricle by 40 percent (the left ventricle is the primary pumping chamber), and cut back on the hardening of the heart's lining by up to 50 percent. When the heart's lining starts hardening, it loses its ability to contract.

"This work demonstrates a novel non-invasive mesenchymal stem cell therapeutic regimen for heart failure based on an intramuscular delivery route," said Techung Lee, Ph.D., a biochemistry professor at the University of Buffalo and senior author of the paper, according to the University's news release. The paper that reported on this research appeared online in the Articles-in-Press section of the American Journal of Physiology-Heart Circulation Physiology. 

Mesenchymal stem cells, found in the bone marrow, have the ability to differentiate into a variety of cell types. Dr. Dennis Goodman, clinical associate professor at NYU School of Medicine, says this is "early, basic research" but notes that it could make a huge impact in the future for patients with heart disease." "This has been tried before but when they tried to inject the cells into the heart muscle itself, the tissue was not healthy so it was hard for the stem cells to grow," Goodman says. "What's exciting about this is that there is another way to deliver the stem cells."

Clinical trials on heart disease patients using stem cells are underway now at the Cleveland Clinic, explains Dr. Marc S. Penn, in the Clinic's Department of Cardiovascular Medicine and Cell Biology. He takes bone marrow-derived stem cells and re-injects them into the body.   The stem cells are guided to the damaged heart to repair.

Penn explains, "We are now trying to find out why this works and whether we have to inject the whole marrow or if there a specific population of cells out of that marrow that is best for the heart."

Goodman calls the bone marrow stem cell therapy promising. "This can make a real impact in the future," he says. "It's definitely something to bring to people's attention."