After two heart attacks, Michael Jones of Louisville suffered heart failure that made him so weak he could manage only a few football passes now and then with his grandson. But after becoming one of the world's first heart patients to get an infusion of cardiac stem cells, Jones said he works out on a treadmill and bike and feels invigorated.
“I hope to have as normal a life as anyone,” “the self-employed painting and remodeling contractor said at a news conference Friday. “I might even start jogging again.”
Jones, 66, received an infusion of his own stem cells through a minimally invasive catheterization procedure on July 17— as part of a clinical trial being conducted by a team of University of Louisville physicians at Jewish Hospital. The doctors, who announced the trial and started recruiting patients in February, are using adult cardiac stem cells to heal hearts. They said they were infusing the second patient Friday. A similar procedure, involving slightly different cells, was performed last month in California, doctors said.
“It is an important, historic announcement,” U of L President James Ramsey said. “The No. 1 killer is heart disease, and we in Kentucky have a higher incidence than the national average.”
American Heart Association statistics rank Kentucky seventh-worst in the nation for cardiovascular deaths, with about 14,000 a year. Study leader Dr. Roberto Bolli said heart failure is one of the worst cardiovascular conditions, afflicting about 6 million Americans. Often, the only options for patients are transplants, heart-assist devices or palliative care. Mortality rates are high “and the treatments we have are, by and large, unsatisfactory,” said Bolli, Jewish Hospital Heart and Lung Institute Distinguished Chair in Cardiology. Jones, who had his first heart attack 4 ½ years ago, said he was diagnosed with heart failure about three or four months after that, with blocked arteries that caused permanent scarring of his heart muscle. Doctors said he was a good candidate for the stem cell procedure because he had not yet had bypass surgery.
On March 23, Dr. Mark Slaughter, chief of U of L's division of cardiothoracic surgery, performed coronary artery bypass surgery, removing Jones' cardiac stem cells from a portion of the upper chamber of the heart. The tissue was then frozen and sent to colleagues at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Harvard University. There, stem cells were isolated and expanded before being sent back to Jewish Hospital for infusion. After Jones' heart attacks, doctors said his “ejection fraction,” a measurement of the amount of blood pumped out of the left ventricle with each heartbeat, was lower than 25 percent, compared with 50 percent or more for healthy people. Now, doctors said, it's about 30 percent, and they hope it continues to increase. Doctors said they have enrolled 14 patients in the clinical trial so far and hope to treat a total of 20 patients who are suffering from heart failure, have had a heart attack and need to undergo cardiac surgery. They will compare these against 20 control subjects. Bolli said the hospital and doctors are donating their services and facilities, so the costs of the trial are reduced, totaling about $10,000 to $20,000 a patient from U of L research funds. Doctors said this is a Phase I trial, which tests the safety and feasibility of a treatment. At this point, side effects from the stem cells are unknown because they are being used for the first time, doctors said, adding that there's no risk of rejection because they are using a patient's own cells. Potential side effects of the catheterization, which reaches the heart through a large artery in the leg, include infection, bleeding, heart attack and stroke. Another clinical trial is being conducted at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles. The difference, Bolli said, is that U of L doctors have injected a pure population of stem cells called “c-kit-positive” cells, while California doctors injected cardiosphere-derived cells, which are a mixture of primitive and partially differentiated cells. If U of L's stem cell procedure succeeds, doctors said, it will be at least three to five years before it becomes a routine treatment. Jones, who said Friday that he has been married for more than 44 years to his high school sweetheart, Shirley, and has two grown children, said he never feared getting the therapy, even though it is experimental.
“I am very, very grateful and honored to be chosen as the first recipient,” said Jones, who lives in southeastern Jefferson County. “This really seemed natural. It just made sense to use the body to regenerate itself.”