Many of us would love to just be rid of our extra fat. But it's rich in stem cells and now science is finding ways to use those cells to help heart patients.

Researchers in the Netherlands have discovered that fat cells removed from the waistline during liposuction could hold promise in treating patients recovering from heart attacks.

A study presented at the American Heart Association meeting in Chicago looked at how fat-derived stem cells can help repair damaged hearts. The treatment appears to reduce the amount of damaged heart tissue, increase blood flow, and improve the heart's pumping ability.

The study was small and the researchers say the changes were not statistically significant. Still, they are encouraged that they are on the right track with this work on "adipose-derived regenerative cells."

"The results are encouraging and it shows that the technique is safe to use in a fragile patient during an acute phase of their heart attack," the lead investigator Dr. Henricus J Duckers of Erasmus University Medical Centre, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, tells CTV.

"So it strengthened in us our belief that we are doing something right."

Duckers and his team recruited 11 men and three women for the study. All patients were having severe heart attacks and underwent a catheter procedure called angioplasty, in which a balloon was inserted to unblock their heart arteries.

With the patients' consent, researchers then liposuctioned 200-250 cubic centimeters of fat from the abdomen of each. From the fat cells, they quickly isolated 20 million regenerative stem cells. Within 24 hours, 10 of the patients had received an infusion of stem cells into their hearts, while four got a placebo infusion.

Six months later, researchers found the average size of heart muscle damage dropped from 31.6 per cent to 15.4 per cent in the treatment group.

"What it means for the patient is they have less heart failure, and also less reoccurrences of heart attacks," explained Ducker.

The patients who received the placebo, meanwhile, saw no improvement, with the average area of damage remaining the same.

The researchers also noted small improvements in the heart's pumping ability, a process caller perfusion.

While the process of infusing the heart with the stem cells didn't have any side effects, two of the patients developed hematomas from the liposuction, which is an area of swelling filled with blood.

The researchers note that their study was quite small, so it had "low statistical power" to detect differences between the treated and untreated groups.

But Duckers and his team have started Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials that will enroll up to 375 patients at 35 medical centres in the European Union.

Forty per cent of patients in that study will receive 20 million stem cells; another 40 per cent will get 30 million stem cells; and 20 per cent will make up the placebo group.

The study results are exciting news for scientists in Winnipeg who have been seeing the same repair mechanisms in studies they're doing on animals using fat stem cells.

"We're showing these cells are retained in the area of the heart attack and they do seem to contribute to function," say cardiac researchers Dr. Rakesh Arora and Ganghong Tian.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip