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Take Heart: Promising Results with Stem Cell Therapy

By Robin Williams Adams, The Ledger, September 17, 2006

When Florida doctors could do no more to improve his failing heart, Jack flew to Thailand for help.

In an experimental procedure to improve the heart's ability to pump blood, stem cells from his blood were multiplied by the millions and put into his heart.

Improvement wasn't certain, and at the Bangkok Heart Hospital the treatment cost him between $30,000 and $35,000.

The Lakeland man wasn’t willing to risk not receiving the operation. Without the procedure, Jack would have been giving in to his steadily worsening congestive heart failure.

"My thoughts were `I don't have much time left and I'm going to do what I have to do,' " said Jack, who is 76.

When he left for Thailand, the percentage of blood pumped from the heart each beat – his ejection fraction – was 20 percent or less, Jack said. Anything below 35 is low; normal pumping ability is 50 to 75 percent.

Jack is happy he got the procedure because his pumping percentage began to increase only four months later to 23 percent. Jack is optimistic that it will continue to go up instead of down.

"I can tell I'm much stronger on the inside than I was," he said. "If I can make the same progress in the next three months . . . I'll be in good shape."

Don Ho, a world famous singer who is well known for “Tiny Bubbles” and “The Hawaiian Wedding Song” had the same procedure done late last year. Jack decided to get the treatment after seeing the improved condition of Ho.

The treatment isn’t mumbo jumbo, although it is still considered experimental.

A growing number of researchers in the United States and abroad are studying whether cellular treatment, using a patient's own stem cells, can present enhanced health for many patients.

With the potential to develop into many types of cells, the range of stem cells cannot be questioned.

The use of adult stem cells avoids many of the ethical and moral disagreements inherent in embryonic stem cell use, which has dominated public discussion of stem-cell treatment thus far.

Doctors want additional treatments to offer their patients, especially with an aging population and the increasing number of heart-attack survivors with damaged hearts.

"I'm very excited about it," said Dr. Kevin, a Lakeland cardiologist and director of Watson Clinic Center for Research.

"The future of this whole area may revolutionize our care of people with weak hearts. . . . That's one of the most cutting edge approaches that's happening, but it’s a little ways off."

Before accepting him as a patient, Jack said his cardiologist, Dr. Luis, was very cooperative in providing the doctors in Thailand with information. Dr. Luis could not be reached for comment.

Jack said concern arose amongst the heart doctors in Thailand as to whether his heart would be able to accept stem cells.

However, it was determined that more than 50 percent of his heart was in good shape when Dr. Luis tested him.

"Though that operation is not legal in this country, supplying the supporting information is not illegal, so Clark & Daughtrey (Medical Group) gave them records back to 1999," he said.

In 1977, Jack had a heart attack. A double bypass, valve repair and surgery to peel away scar tissue were performed in 1999. The procedure didn’t end his weakness in his heart’s pumping mechanism, but it did by him some time.

"Congestive heart failure is a breakdown in the heart's ability to squeeze out liquid," he said.

There was a lot of information to assess prior to being accepted as a patient for stem cell treatment.

Jack had extreme weakness and suffered from hallucinations last fall when he was admitted to LRMC. It was with the understanding that he would get hospice care when he finally went home, said Jack.

His mind and heart weren’t prepared for dying.

"You join a hospice to have a comfortable death," he said. "That's why I joined, but I fooled them."

While researching Jack’s condition online, his daughter Susan found information about the procedure.

Dr. Luis continues to monitor Jack’s heart. His experience is different form that of another Florida man whose doctor actually dropped him as a patient after he received stem-cell therapy.

Jack agreed earlier this month to talk about his experience and the stem-cell treatment at a Lakeland South Rotary Club meeting, and he is eager to make others aware of the procedure.

Jack and his wife, Norma, spent three weeks in Thailand.

Tests occupied one week. Another was spent sending the blood to a lab in Israel, where the stem cells were multiplied, said Jack.

Receiving the cells involved two incisions, a small one on his right side and another, about six inches long, on the left side.

"The most difficult part of the whole thing was the trip back," he said. "A 24-hour day became a 36-hour day."


 

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