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Adult Stem Cells Treat Heart Failure

U.S. News & World Report, August 18, 2009

At 68 years of age, Brent Benson was suffering from heart failure. As a biochemist who previously conducted tests for the Environmental Protection Agency, Benson was no stranger to physiology and medical science. By his own assessment, he says, "I'm essentially dying of heart failure. I was so far down, I had to try."

Now, however, approximately 5 months after receiving autologous adult stem cell therapy, Benson describes himself very differently. "My life is full and busy," he says. "I had lost that prior to this operation."

Autologous (in which the donor and recipient are the same person) adult stem cell therapy is catching on. Increasingly used in the treatment of a wide variety of diseases and injuries throughout the world, the procedure has shown such consistent success in patient improvement that the news finally seems to be spreading.

In Brent Benson's particular case, he was able to participate in a clinical trial conducted at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. After his own adult stem cells were extracted from his bone marrow via his hip, the cells were processed in a laboratory and later injected directly into his heart. He received a total of 30 injections, after which time his heart has exhibited considerable improvement, with his ejection fraction - a measure of the heart's ability to pump blood - increasing from 15% to over 30%. While an ejection fraction between 55 and 70% is considered normal for healthy people, doctors expect Benson's ejection fraction to continue to improve.

Heart failure is one of the most prevalent of all diseases, especially in developed nations. The American Heart Association estimates that in the U.S. alone there are more than 5.7 million people who live with heart failure, with approximately 670,000 new cases being diagnosed each year.

Dr. James Willerson is president of the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and a principal investigator of a separate clinical trial sponsored by NIH (the National Institutes of Health), also for the study of adult stem cell therapies in the treatment of heart failure. As Dr. Willerson explains, "When you put (adult) stem cells into a heart, some can differentiate to become blood vessels and others to become heart muscle cells." Additionally, Dr. Willerson adds, these types of adult stem cells, which are known as mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), also contain growth factors and other beneficial "substances that recruit other cells and promote life," which makes the MSCs particularly efficacious as a clinical therapy. According to Dr. Willerson, "I believe we will be able to regenerate the whole heart of a human being with stem cells."

Dr. Douglas Losordo, director of the Program in Cardiovascular Regenerative Medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, is conducting a pilot study in which 10 patients with heart failure are being treated with their own autologous adult stem cells, derived not from their bone marrow but instead from each patient's own peripheral blood. As enthusiastic as he is about adult stem cell therapy, however, he is quick to point out that the field is not without its challenges. As Dr. Losordo explains, "Even as a wildly optimistic guy, I don't imagine that anything I do on a single day in the cath lab is going to reverse 30 years of disease."

Similarly, Dr. Amit Patel, director of Cardiovascular Regenerative Medicine at the University of Utah and the leader of the study in which Mr. Benson is participating, believes that patients should not be shy about seeking adult stem cell treatment, but he also encourages them to conduct their own research and find a medical facility with specialists in a wide variety of fields, who can offer other forms of treatment in addition to adult stem cell therapy. According to Dr. Patel, "This is just one component of the entire continuum of heart failure treatment. It's the sexiest one, but it's only one component."

In a comment which is regarded by many as being more than just slightly odd, Dr. Patel also adds that, "With any cell-based therapy, there's such a high placebo effect. There's so much hype about the potential of stem cells. It's positive reinforcement." In specific reference to Brent Benson, however, who lives at an altitude of 9,000 feet, Dr. Patel further acknowleges that, "Elevation, that's the ultimate stress test." The fact that Benson has regained his energy and vigor following his adult stem cell therapy, while residing at such a high elevation, is concrete evidence for the powerful regenerative capacity of adult stem cells, and probably cannot be attributed solely to "the placebo effect". On the other hand, if someone with clinical heart failure can recover to the extent that their ejection fraction improves from 15% to more than 30%, for no other reason than "the placebo effect", then perhaps more attention should be paid to this grossly misunderstood phenomenon, and perhaps pharmaceutical companies might want to begin bottling and marketing "the placebo effect".

Whether inspite of or because of sudden, remarkable improvement in critically ill patients which is often explained as "just the placebo effect", Dr. Losordo adds that patients should not be afraid to pursue adult stem cell treatment, though he acknowledges that some patients have a difficult time knowing where or how to start. As he explains, "In my opinion, most patients are far too shy about picking up a phone and starting a line of inquiry. All the people involved in this stuff at medical centers, we want to help folks out."

In Brent Benson's particular case, one of his cardiologists told him, "You don't have a thing to lose. You don't have much time left." For most people, a prognosis such as this would be enough to cure them of their shyness.

Not only is Benson now able to be physically active, without fatigue, while tending to the fruit trees on his farm and while also working on the deck at his home in Utah, at an eleveation of 9,000 feet, but also, as Benson now asserts, "I've gotten my sense of humor back."

Not bad, for "the placebo effect".



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