Cell-based therapy has long been considered a promising strategy for the treatment of heart failure (HF). However, its effectiveness in the clinical setting is now doubted. Because previous meta-analyses provided conflicting results, we sought to review all available data focusing on cell type and trial design.
Methods and findings
The electronic databases PubMed, Cochrane library, ClinicalTrials.gov, and EudraCT were searched for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) utilizing cell therapy for HF patients from January 1, 2000 to December 31, 2020. Forty-three RCTs with 2855 participants were identified. The quality of the reported study design was assessed by evaluating the risk-of-bias (ROB). Primary outcomes were defined as mortality rate and left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF) change from baseline. Secondary outcomes included both heart function data and clinical symptoms/events. Between-study heterogeneity was assessed using the I2 index. Subgroup analysis was performed based on HF type, cell source, cell origin, cell type, cell processing, type of surgical intervention, cell delivery routes, cell dose, and follow-up duration. Only 10 of the 43 studies had a low ROB for all method- and outcome parameters. A higher ROB was associated with a greater increase in LVEF. Overall, there was no impact on mortality for up to 12 months follow-up, and a clinically irrelevant average LVEF increase by LVEF (2.4%, 95% CI = 0.75−4.05, p = 0.004). Freshly isolated, primary cells tended to produce better outcomes than cultured cell products, but there was no clear impact of the cell source tissue, bone marrow cell phenotype or cell chricdose (raw or normalized for CD34+ cells). A meaningful increase in LVEF was only observed when cell therapy was combined with myocardial revascularization.
The published results suggest a small increase in LVEF following cell therapy for heart failure, but publication bias and methodologic shortcomings need to be taken into account. Given that cardiac cell therapy has now been pursued for 20 years without real progress, further efforts should not be made.