Medical Minute 2-11: Saving Broken Hearts: Stem Cells to the Rescue

By: Vanessa Welch Email
By: Vanessa Welch Email

"My great grandchildren will be asked, 'Who was the first president? George Washington. Who was first stem cell recipient?'" said John Christy.

The answer: John Christy. He is the first person in the United States to have his own bone marrow stem cells injected into his heart to save his heart.

"All you're doing is giving back to yourself something you already have," said John Christy.

This Vietnam vet was suffering from severe coronary artery disease.

"I was just thinking, you're getting old, tiring out and getting weary bones. I felt tingling. My legs had been swelling a little bit," he said.

In one procedure, cardio-thoracic surgeon Joseph Woo at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine is taking science from bench to bedside. After five years of research in animals, he is now retrieving stem cells from John's bone marrow and using them to grow blood vessels around the heart

"They form brand new micro blood vessels and deliver blood flow to the heart muscle," said Y. Joseph Woo, M.D., Cardiothoracic Surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

He has started the first U.S. trial where stem cells are harvested during surgery, prepped and then re-inserted back into the patients own heart. Results for Mr. Christy were seen almost immediately

"I noticed two days after surgery, I had much more comfort," said Christy.

It's the same process that saved 76-year-old Christina McDonald -- only it wasn't arteries in her heart that were damaged. Christina's problem was in her legs.

"Sort of like a Charlie horse where the muscles stiffen up," said McDonald.

The arteries in her leg were clogged with plaque --putting her at risk for heart attack, stroke and amputation. Traditionally, doctors treat it with stents, angioplasties or bypasses. But now, they're using stem cells.

"We basically take stem cells from their hips to help grow blood vessels. It creates new, smaller blood vessels that give blood supply to the limb," said Randall Franz, M.D., Vascular Surgeon Grant Medical Center Columbus, Ohio.

It worked for Christina. Three months later, her pain is gone. The same goes for John. His only wish: That science was working faster. He lost his wife to heart disease one year ago.

"I wish she could have had this."

FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT: Jessica MikulskiSenior Medical Communications Officer University of Pennsylvania School of 349-8369.

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