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Stem Cells Healing Hearts

Two men in landmark heart stem cell study tell their stories.
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A Former Athlete Struggles continued...

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.

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."

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