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Naples Man Fights Against Heart Failure with Aid of Stem Cells

By Liz Freeman, Naples News, February 1, 2007

Another seven or eight months, and Mel would be dead. He was running out of time since he found no sympathy from congestive heart failure.

But then adult stem cells came into the picture, quite literally, as a potential life saving treatment. Mel's son watched a program on The Discovery Channel about adult stem cells. They were injected to improve heart function and grow new muscle after being harvested from a person's own blood.

The Bangkok Heart Hospital became the 72-year-old Mel's destination of choice, since adult stem cell therapy is only in its infancy in the United States in terms of treatment and research.

Thailand became the country where Mel would receive his treatment.

"I feel 100 percent better," Mel, a retired businessman in Naples, said. "I can walk around and do a lot of things without getting out of breath. Of course, there are a lot of skeptics in the medical field."

Dr. Zannos, has become an advocate of the procedure; and for those who are skeptical that the procedure really had any effect, the Florida cardiologist is sponsoring a free seminar on adult stem cell therapy for heart failure.  Mel will be attending the event.

"If you get a chance, go to the seminar and find out about it," Mel said of his advice to others with congestive heart failure, even though he is not a patient of Zannos. "I've just had such great success. It's a lifesaver."

Dr. Zannos performs medical screenings for potential candidates, so they may receive the same treatment as Mel.

Sara, who is the clinical coordinator for Dr. Zannos says that, "People are surfing the Net," referring to how congestive heart failure patients are researching treatment alternatives when they've exhausted what's available in the United States, namely heart surgery and defibrillators.

Stem cell therapy is still experimental in the United States, so insurance does not cover the expensive ($30,000 to $40,000) procedure.  The price includes the procedure along with travel expenses and hotel stays, but all must be paid out of pocket.

The procedure utilizes millions of stem cells, which have been sent to and multiplied in Israel after being extracted from a patient blood sample.  After the cells are expanded, they are sent back to Bangkok so the patient can have the cells injected into their heart muscle.

Prior to the patient traveling to Bangkok, Zannos "optimizes" a patient's health as much as possible after a pre-screening.  The optimization process involves whatever is necessary, such as adjusting defibrillators and medications.  Post-procedure monitoring and follow-up care is also conducted by Zannos.

A handful of patients have made remarkable improvement thanks to the adult stem cell therapy, and Zannos has seen this first hand after taking a trip to Bangkok himself.

"You can see it on their echocardiograms," he said, adding that other cardiologists are seeing the same results. "It's hard to argue (over it) with patients who are doing so well."

In early May, the Bangkok Heart Hospital administered the treatment for Mel. After 36 injections and an entire month, his treatment was complete. The right side of his heart received six injections while the weaker left side of his heart received the other 30. Mel mentioned that the hospital in Bangkok was impressive.

"It is brand new," Mel said. "You wouldn't believe it. It is so clean and the physicians there are fantastic."

Ejection fraction is a measurement of blood pumping out of the heart, a way to measure cardiac efficiency. A healthy human being has a normal ejection fraction of 55. But before Mel went to Bangkok, his was 19.

"Since I've been back, seven weeks ago it was 34, so it's gone up 90 percent," Mel said.

The potential result following the procedure was something the Bangkok doctors could not tell him, so Mel knew he was taking a chance. And he understands that a combination of politics and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could keep U.S. researchers years away from offering a potential similar treatment option.

"If this works as well as they say it will, what will happen to the pharmaceutical market?" he asked.

Given how prevalent the disease is in the United States, Billings who works with Zannos’ practice, says she’s surprised that more people are not scrambling for stem cell therapy. She says this after having years of experience at the NCH Downtown Naples Hospital caring for congestive heart failure patients.

"Heart failure is a national epidemic," she said. "Fifty percent of people diagnosed with heart failure will die within five years of diagnosis."


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