Damaged hearts being repaired with stem cells

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Repairing a damaged heart has become much more than opening clogged arteries in the Cardiac Catheterization Lab at Pepin Heart Hospital in Tampa.

Dr. Charles Lambert and his team are injecting stem cells directly into specific areas in the walls of damaged hearts.

"We know where viable tissue is, what part of the heart is contracting and has live cells there," he explains.

Finding that living tissue begins with creating a color-coded map of the heart identifying areas where blood flow is maximized.

"We go back after mapping with a needle that comes out of the catheter and we do roughly twenty injections in viable tissue area," Lambert says.

It's all part of an experimental clinical trial Shiela Allen hopes will help her failing heart recover. Less than two hours after welcoming her youngest grandchild into this world, her grandson drove her to the emergency room.

"I couldn't breathe," she recalled.

Sheila was shocked when doctors told her that her heart was pumping at less than half of what it should.

"Now that I look back, I can figure out I had all the symptoms but I was just putting it off because I'm busy, I'm old, I'm a little bit overweight," she admits.

Like many women, Sheila ignored warning signs like fatigue, coughing and shortness of breath - especially when lying down.

"The coughing was odd to me because I was not congested, I could not lay flat in bed so I was propped up on four or five pillows," she says.

Similar to a balloon filled with too much water, the cardiac muscle is overstretched, thin, and weak. So weak, it can only pump a fraction of the blood inside its chambers to the rest of the body. That causes fluid to back up into the lungs and other parts of the body like the legs.

For about a decade, cardiologists have tried using stem cells to strengthen the muscle with mixed results. This study is hoping a new twist, will make it more successful.

Along with using the heart map to direct the injections, the stem cells are also different. Instead of taking them from the patient, syringes like these are filled with stem cells from donors.

"These trial cells are taken from healthy volunteers that are actually medical students, not here in town, but actually up in the northeast," he explains.

Another key difference in the study is the product's maker, Mesoblast. It is allowing people like Sheila, who have heart failure from unknown causes, to also enter the study. The clinical trial using the younger cells is now in 50 centers across the world. 

"They're preserved so when we randomize a patient we take it off the shelf, treat it, warm it, the cells are perfectly alive and healthy and then administer it to the patients," Lambert says.

Side effects in earlier studies included a drop in blood pressure, bleeding, and fluid accumulation around the heart.

"It was basically like I was having another heart catheterization," Sheila says her side effects were minimal. "Three days after the procedure I was on a plane going on a trip."

She's not sure if she got a placebo or the actual cells, but as she completes her cardiac rehabilitation therapy, she says she is feeling better, "I've had a little more energy I don’t know if it's related to that."

Energy allowing her to spend time with her family, and watch her youngest grandchild grow.