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Stem Cells Healing Hearts

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

Encouraging Results continued...

Typically, patients who develop scarring and heart failure after heart attack don't get better, Bolli says. "They don't get better because a scar is a scar; it doesn't change, it doesn't go away. The best you can hope for is that [patients] don't get worse."

He's hoping that stem cells will change that, for good. "Obviously, that's what we're looking for: a permanent improvement, rather than a transient one."

The findings from Dearing's latest echocardiogram, Bolli says in an email, "support[s] the notion that the benefits received from our stem cell therapy are sustained over time."

But Bolli does not consider Dearing to be "cured" of heart disease. He explains that Dearing probably still has scarring on his heart from the heart attack, though his heart is functioning normally.

Still, the stem cell procedure isn't ready for prime time. Jones and Dearing took part in a phase I clinical trial, which means that researchers were mainly assessing safety and initial effectiveness. Only 20 patients were enrolled -- too few to gauge full effectiveness.

Before cardiac stem cells can become an approved treatment to regenerate damaged hearts, scientists must do larger clinical trials. That could take three or four years, Bolli says.

Bolli's team is applying for permission to continue studying Jones and Dearing. The researchers also want to start phase II studies -- the next step forward -- but funding is not yet in place.

Meanwhile, Jones and Dearing, now close friends who chat by phone about twice a week and occasionally double-date with their wives, hope the procedure will prove helpful to other patients. But they are reluctant to entertain the notion that they might be making history.

His own part in the stem cell trial may have played a small role, Dearing finally allows. "It's one cog in the wheel, going forward," he says. "It's like the race to the moon."

Life "Falling Back Into Place"

Jones, who couldn't even play online checkers without chest pain, can now work outdoors at his home, set on nine acres of countryside. Not only can he "brisk-walk" on a treadmill for 30 minutes, he says, but "I can pretty much mow nine acres on a tractor. I'll take lopping shears and cut down those little aggravating things along the creek that you don't want growing up. I don't work as fast as I used to... but I can generally do anything I want to do."

"It's been amazing," his wife says. "He had no hope, and after he started feeling better, things just started falling into place. The look in his face -- his color is better. He isn't ashen. He could do things with the grandkids, and our quality of life together is just so much better."

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