Heart failure is a clinical problem with
high societal relevance.
Searching for the best treatments for heart problems.
— Pieter Doevendans
The UMC Utrecht tries to use stem cells to optimize the treatment of people who have had a heart attack. In collaboration with international parties in China and the US, large-scale studies are conducted to find the best treatment for heart problems.
“At the UMC Utrecht’s department of Cardiology, we treat patients with heart problems,” says Pieter Doevendans, Professor of Cardiology and Head of the Division of Heart and Lungs. “People with severe forms of heart failure come to us for a cardiac transplantation or sometimes we opt to give them a ventricular assist device (VAD). We also do a lot of work treating people with acute myocardial infarction. We’re on call to treat them night and day, trying to keep the myocardial damage to a minimum.”
Doevendans and his collaegues are also exploring regenerative medicine to treat limb ischemia, cardiac failure and valve disease. “We’re studying stem cell therapy for cardiovascular tissue regeneration. The heart has only limited regenerative capacity. A scar is the most prominent effect of a heart attack, but scars hinder myocardial tissue repair. Early treatment reduces scar formation, therefore patients with a heart attack should be treated as quickly as possible,” describes Doevendans. “We’re now making myocardial tissues for mice and rats, but we don’t have the right tissue for human patients, yet,” he continues, “the body’s immune response is very strong, that’s also complicating cell and tissue transplantation. Therefore general tissue might not be suitable for everyone.”
Working with stem cells and tissue regeneration stays close to biology. “There’s something really fascinating about bringing back an organ in its original state with biological materials. However, we still have a long way to go. We will never, ever be able to completely fix a damaged heart but will always need external technology to support the pump function of the heart in some patients. The heart is contracting 70 times a minute life long! That poses a big challenge. Technology provides a highly reliable tool compared to biology, which is variable and less predictive. Everbody thought repairing tissues would be easy, but it’s far more complex than we thought. Mother Nature is difficult to imitate, not to mention improve.”
When Doevendans was a 12-year-old boy, his father died from a heart attack in his sleep at the age of 41. He still clearly remembers the day, September 11th. This tragic event triggered his fascination for the heart and made him decide to become a cardiologist. He never regretted his choice. “What I like most is treating patients with myocardial infarction. It takes only ten minutes to open the blocked coronary artery, which gives patients immediate relieve. Acute myocardial infarction causes a lot of pain, people feel sick, are nauseated, sweating and stressed. They come in crying, but leave the room smiling. Helping those patients is really rewarding.”