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[RIO DE JANEIRO] The Brazilian ministries of health and science and technology have launched a US$4.3 million programme to fund research into the use of stem cells to treat heart disease — one of the country's biggest health problems.

Until now, stem cell research into heart conditions in the country has been limited to experimental work in laboratories. Approval from the Ministry of Health means researchers will now be able to start trials on people. The three-year study will involve 1,200 heart patients and be coordinated by the National Heart Institute of Laranjeiras, which will also provide technical advice to participating researchers.

Stem cells will be taken from the patients' own bone marrow and injected into their heart muscle in an attempt to restore damaged tissue. Treatments using such 'autologous' stem cells — extracted from and used in the same person — are well known, particularly for treating leukaemia and other cancers. But using the technique to repair tissues damaged by heart disease is a recent development.

According to Reinaldo Guimarães, director of the Department of Science and Technology at the Ministry of Health, the programme is especially important because heart disease has become one of the prime causes of illness, disability and death in Brazil.

"Treatment of such diseases is one of the most expensive items in the SUS [Brazilian health care system]", says Guimarães. The four types of heart disease that will be included in the study are dilated cardiopathy, chronic ischaemia, acute heart attack, and damaged heart tissue caused by Chagas disease.

One of the study's objectives is to provide information to guide future decisions on whether to include stem cell therapy in the SUS. The programme is also a first step towards creating a network of research institutions and hospitals working together in stem cell therapy.  

Research groups have shown that surgical stem cell therapy is a viable — and potentially cheaper — alternative to current treatments, according to Guimarães.

Research centres interested in participating have until 5 November to apply for grants from the Brazilian funding agency, Finep (Financiadora de Estudos e Projetos).  

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