At the University of Washington’s Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, scientists and physicians are manipulating stem cells to heal and restore the function of hearts, eyes, kidneys and other tissues.

Share story

IF you have a heart attack, hopefully you’ll survive. But your body will be forever changed. The world’s best doctors can’t undo the damage; instead, drugs and devices will help you live with a heart whose function too often dwindles.

The body cannot replace muscle cells that die in heart attacks — maladies that help make heart failure the No. 1 global cause of death and our nation’s biggest health care expense. These patients face daily medication, decreased energy and, for the lucky 0.1 percent, the ability to qualify for an extraordinarily costly heart transplant and anti-rejection medication that also leaves them more vulnerable to other diseases.

Thanks to medical advances, heart failure has become a chronic condition that people are now managing for decades. The same is true for diabetes, kidney disease and arthritis. But with that longevity comes a tether to drug regimens whose costs rise seemingly at whim.

These chronic diseases are a major reason that health-care costs hold center stage in Americans’ consciousness.

Amid our collective uncertainty, medical science offers one path of relief. Specifically, the engineering of human cells and tissues to restore vitality to poorly functioning organs.

The medical conditions named above share a common root not addressed by today’s best care: The body is missing a population of cells that do critical work. If we could restore that population, we could cure many chronic diseases.

At the University of Washington’s Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM), scientists and physicians are manipulating stem cells to heal and restore the function of hearts, eyes, kidneys and other tissues.

This year, we also seek a first-time investment from our state Legislature.

We’ve pioneered techniques to grow unlimited human heart muscle cells in the lab. We were the first to transplant these cells into injured hearts and repair the injury with new tissue growth. UW Medicine will begin first-in-human tests of these cells in Seattle in 2019.

If this “one and done” treatment prevents heart failure in even the sickest 10 percent of heart-attack patients, our nation could save a staggering $3.5 billion per year in health-care costs. More importantly, these patients will lead longer, healthier, more productive lives.

Other ISCRM scientists are pursuing a gene therapy for muscular dystrophy, a devastating illness that often strikes young boys. The therapy, tested in Labrador puppies that were paraplegic as a result of the same, naturally occurring muscle-wasting disease, had the dogs leaping and frolicking in just weeks. A clinical trial is planned for 2018.

We are similarly probing therapies for cancer, kidney failure, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. And we’re doing this with the Northwest’s entrepreneurial spirit: In the past decade, ISCRM has patented 250+ discoveries with commercial potential and started 20 companies.

Legislatures in at least 11 other states, including California, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Maryland, have invested cumulative billions in regenerative medicine. Most of that funding has gone to university-based research centers like ours.

To this point there has been no state investment in ISCRM. Nevertheless we have built a world-class program with federal grants and private philanthropy. But those dollars come in boom-and-bust cycles, and what we need now is stable funding to maintain competitiveness.

For this reason, the UW seeks $6 million in operating funds from the Legislature, starting with the next biennium, to recruit and retain top scientists, fund promising results at early stages, and train young researchers and clinicians.

We are grateful, at this juncture, that the state Senate included us in its initial budget.

We ask all legislators to invest in the health of our residents and in the promise of what we’ve accomplished so far. With stem-cell biology, we are ready to rebuild solid tissues like the heart and potentially cure our nation’s greatest cause of death and health-care expense.

Clinical success will make Washington a destination for heart repair and other regenerative therapies. This race is ours to lose.