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Stem Cells Healing Hearts

Two men in landmark heart stem cell study tell their stories.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jim Dearing of Louisville, Ky., one of the first men in the world to receive heart stem cells, might have helped start a medical revolution that could lead to a cure for heart failure.

Three years after getting the experimental stem cell procedure, following two heart attacks and heart failure, Dearing’s heart is working normally.

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The difference is clear and dramatic -- and it's lasting, according to findings now being made public for the first time.

Dearing first showed "completely normal heart function" on an echocardiogram done in 2011, says Roberto Bolli, MD, who is leading the stem cell trial at the University of Louisville. Those results have not been published before.

That was still true in July 2012, when Dearing again showed normal heart function on another echocardiogram.

Based on those tests, Bolli says, "Anyone who looks at his heart now would not imagine that this patient was in heart failure, that he had a heart attack, that he was in the hospital, that he had surgery, and everything else."

It's not just Dearing who has benefited. His friend, Mike Jones, who had even more severe heart damage, also got the stem cell procedure in 2009. Since then, scarred regions of his heart have shrunk. His heart now appears leaner and stronger than it was before.

"What's striking and exciting is that we're seeing what appears to be a long-lasting improvement in function," Bolli says. If larger studies confirm the findings, "potentially, we have a cure for heart failure because we have something that for the first time can actually regenerate dead tissue."

Rare Opportunity

Jones, 69, first learned about the heart stem cell trial in a convenience store.

He was buying diet soda when he saw a newspaper headline about the proposed research. Other scientists had tried using bone marrow stem cells to rejuvenate damaged hearts, but the University of Louisville researchers would be the first to use a patient's own heart stem cells, harvested during bypass surgery.

For the first time in a long while, Jones felt hopeful and excited. Already, he was pondering his mortality. He was drastically weakened from a heart attack in 2004 that had led to congestive heart failure, a problem in which the heart pumps blood inadequately. Heavy exposure to Agent Orange during his military years contributed to his heart disease, he says. The Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes heart disease as "associated" with exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service.

Walking had become difficult. His ashen color and frequent sweating alarmed his wife, Shirley, a 67-year-old retired nurse. "I was very concerned," she says. "I knew that I wasn't going to have him long if something didn't happen."

Often, Jones relied on nitroglycerin to ease his chest pain, which struck after even a little exertion. Before the stem cell trial, he says, "I wasn't capable of doing much of anything. I could be playing a game of Internet checkers and get chest pain. There's not much to moving the mouse and clicking."

After seeing the article, he called the University of Louisville right away to volunteer. At first, his wife had mixed feelings, since this specific type of stem cell experiment had never been done in humans. But she came to trust her husband's judgment, she says.

Both grasped the seriousness of his heart disease. "I knew things were winding down, so it just came at the right time," Jones says.

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