New research plans to make use of patients’ own stem cells to fix broken hearts

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On Sept. 14, 46-year-old Hatem Faraj suffered a major heart attack while watching Monday Night Football on TV.
Tuesday, the Wesley Chapel man joined the cutting edge of heart disease research, becoming the area’s first participant in a study to see if a patient’s own stem cells can regenerate his damaged heart muscle.

The procedure he had at Pepin Heart at University Community Hospital in Tampa is part of a University of Florida research program. Its aim is improving chances of long-term survival and reducing heart transplants. Using stem cells to regenerate heart tissue has been studied for several years in animals and humans, producing mixed results. Still, the therapy is considered promising for millions of Americans with heart failure (…)

The most appealing part of the study is that a patient’s own stem cells are used, he said. “It won’t hurt you to participate,” Matar said. “I would encourage physicians to refer their patients.”

Researchers are looking at many questions surrounding the therapy: how many stem cells to infuse into the heart, how long it will take to see results, how soon after a cardiac event should treatment be delivered, how much tissue regeneration can patients expect. The long-term effects of such therapy are unknown.

The University of Florida is one of five U.S. medical centers involved in three federally funded stem cell regeneration clinical trials. Bay area hospitals with cardiac care programs were asked help enroll the almost 300 patients needed for the 2 1/2-year-long study.

“It will be a challenge,” says Dr. Charles Lambert, medical director at Pepin, the first satellite center in Florida to recruit a study participant. Lambert says that’s because patients who have just survived a heart attack must undergo two medical procedures: one to harvest bone marrow in order to get the stem cells, and another to infuse cells in the heart.

Two-thirds of participants will be infused with stem cells; the others will receive a cell-free solution. Patients — including Faraj — won’t know if they actually receive stem cells, standard protocol in medical research (…)

Because it was the first procedure at a satellite center, a UF medical team traveled to Tampa to assist with the bone marrow harvest earlier Tuesday and drive the cells back to Gainesville. There, scientists isolated the heart and vascular stem cells, extracted and purified them and handed them off to a second medical team. They drove the little bag of cells, about six tablespoons worth, back to Tampa.

Faraj was only mildly sedated during the hourlong infusion, in which the stem cells (or a cell-free solution) were sent to his heart through a catheter inserted in the groin and threaded through the femoral artery to his heart. He was smiling and talking with hospital staff immediately afterward (…)


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