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Stem Cells Healing Hearts

Two men in landmark heart stem cell study tell their stories.

A Former Athlete Struggles

Meanwhile, Dearing, 72, a standout football player in his youth, struggled to understand his weakness and shortness of breath. "My first inkling of having heart problems was when I couldn't breathe very well. I thought I was out of shape," Dearing says.

Often, he felt wiped out, "as if I had run wind sprints," he says. "That's how you feel. Your legs are gone, you're bending over, leaning on your knees, you're out of breath and you're tired."

After he fared poorly on a treadmill stress test, doctors performed a cardiac catheterization and found four blocked arteries. "That's when I first knew I had a big heart problem," he says. Heart disease runs in his family, having affected both of his parents. Three of his siblings have already had bypass surgery or stents.

Doctors told Dearing that they also saw evidence of a couple of previous heart attacks, although he wasn't aware of them. He also had heart failure.

When he told his wife, Sharon, 69, the news explained a lot. During 46 years of marriage, Sharon had always known Jim to be a vigorous man. But lately, he had seemed much more tired. "He always did a lot of work around the house -- yard work, painting, and that kind of thing -- and it got so that he would put it off," she says. "I thought it was just age."

When a cardiologist asked Jim if he wanted to enter the university stem cell program, he replied, "Yes, I'll do it if it's not [using] embryonic [stem cells]," he says. "I'm a right-to-life person. I'm very active in it."

Public controversy has surrounded research using embryonic stem cells. Dearing had educated himself by reading magazine articles on stem cells. Once he heard that the trial would use his own adult stem cells, he signed on.

His wife wasn't so sure at first, but became confident as she learned more. "I was a bit hesitant, I have to say, because I had not read anything about it, like he had. I was anxious because it was a new thing," she says. "But he was ready to go."

Renewed Lives, New Friendship

In 2009, Jones and Dearing met by chance after striking up a conversation at a local Veterans Affairs hospital's cardiac rehabilitation program. Both had recently undergone bypass surgeries -- but with a bold scientific twist that could expand medicine's frontiers.

During the bypass operations, surgeons cut off a small section of the right atrium, an upper chamber of the heart. Researchers isolated cardiac stem cells from this tissue and then expanded them in the laboratory until they numbered about 1 million.

Four months after bypass, these multiplied cells were infused back into the men's scarred heart tissue through a catheter inserted into the femoral artery in the leg.

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