Using stem cells to repair a broken heart

July 11, 2011 2:54:28 PM PDT
For one man, three heart attacks in just two years took a serious toll. An experimental procedure uses his own stem cells to repair the damage and help his heart function better.

This year, 785,000 people in the US will have their first heart attack. Nearly half a million more, who have already had one or more heart attacks, will suffer another one. Heart attacks can do serious damage to the heart and affect everything from its size to its ability to function. Now, researchers believe our own bodies could hold the key to repairing that damage.

Robert Boyce, 65, was an avid fisherman before he had three heart attacks in just two years, severely damaging his heart.

"My heart was beating like 40, 40 some percent less than it should have been," Boyce said.

Boyce and seven other men were part of a study conducted by Dr. Joshua Hare and his team, testing the heart-healing power of stem cells, at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine.

In a non-invasive catheterization procedure, researchers injected stem cells from patients' own bone marrow directly into damaged areas in their hearts.

"We wanted to see if we took bone marrow and injected the bone marrow into the areas of injury in these human hearts in these patients, would those hearts get better," said Dr. Joshua M. Hare, Cardiologist Director at the Stem Cell Institute, UM Miller School of Medicine.

The preliminary results were that the stem cells significantly reduced the size of enlarged hearts, dramatically improved function in injured areas and reduced scar tissue.

"We think that, for one of the first times in medicine, we've actually taken a damaged area of the heart and made it start beating again," Dr. Hare said.

"My heart, I never had a heart attack. I don't feel as if I had a heart attack," Boyce said.

Having taken up fishing again, Boyce is already feeling younger. An active man hoping that his own stem cells can give him a new lease on life.

Researchers say it's too soon to know whether fixing a damaged heart with stem cells gives Robert or any patient a longer life or better quality of life. Larger, long-term studies may help answer that question. The University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine, is one of several US centers looking at using stem cells for heart repair.