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Stem Cells Healing Hearts

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

Renewed Lives, New Friendship continued...

Jones and Dearing received only their own stem cells back, no donor cells. "That's one thing that's so unique about this: There's no rejection." Jones says. "They're my stem cells."

For the Joneses, high school sweethearts, the stem cell procedure took place on July 17, 2009. "That was a very special day, the anniversary of our first date," Shirley Jones says. "We went to see a movie and we went to the Dairy Queen. I was 15, he was 17. We had a double date -- Mother's rules."

While Jones received the stem cell infusion, his wife and adult daughter waited in a nearby room. Both women caught sight of medical staff carrying a plastic cooler that contained the stem cells.

"I saw this container, and I got so excited," Shirley Jones says. "I said, 'Those are your dad's stem cells!' They were carrying it like Fort Knox, just carrying gold."

She felt a wave of "fear, concern, and excitement," she adds. "I was thinking of what this was going to do for him."

Encouraging Results

Unlike bypass surgery, the stem cell procedure did not require a long recovery period.

After the stem cell infusions, doctors followed Jones, Dearing, and 18 other patients in the trial for two years. They published the one-year results in The Lancet in November 2011. Since then, Bolli's team, along with their research partners at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, are still elated with the highly promising results in follow-up tests.

All of the patients who received stem cells have shown improved heart function and less heart scarring, compared to a control group that showed no improvement. Researchers believe that the stem cells might be regenerating heart muscle -- a step toward disproving a long-held belief that scarred heart tissue remains dead forever.

Jones and Dearing are convinced, too, that they've benefited. Follow-up tests have shown dramatic improvement in the pumping ability of both men's hearts.

Through echocardiograms, doctors tracked their ejection fraction, a measure of the percentage of blood that leaves the heart with every contraction. A normal ejection fraction from the left ventricle ranges from 55%-70%. A measurement under 40% may point to heart failure.

Jones' ejection fraction rose from 26% before the stem cells procedure to 40% two years later; Dearing's went from 38% to 58%.

"Jim didn't have as much heart damage as I did, so he's coming through marvelously," Jones says.

During follow-up, imaging tests showed that scarred regions of Jones' heart had gotten smaller. "The areas where the muscle had died, some of that has been regenerated," Jones says.

Overall, his heart, which had become enlarged from heart failure, appeared leaner and stronger. "It was oversized and it had gotten smaller," he says.

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