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Stem Cells Healing Hearts

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

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."

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