The Spectacular Now: The Marvel of Stem Cells
When Fred Lesikar arrived at the hospital in October 2009 suffering sharp pain in his upper back, neck, and triceps, doctors found the 59-year-old retired small-business owner in the midst of a major heart attack, with an arterial blockage of more than 90 percent. His cardiologist inserted a stent and treated him with blood thinners. Recovering at home in Menifee, Calif., a few weeks later, Lesikar was watching the morning news when he heard about a clinical trial at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, was studying a therapy using a patient’s own heart tissue to create stem cells capable of repairing the heart damage after a heart attack. Because Lesikar’s cardiac function had been reduced by 30 percent, he was especially intrigued. “It was only 5:30 in the morning, but I immediately left a message at Cedars-Sinai,” he recalls.
After extensive testing, Lesikar was randomly assigned to the experimental therapy. In a brief, minimally invasive procedure, a doctor snipped a peppercorn-sized chunk of cardiac tissue from his right ventricle. The sample was then taken to a laboratory, where scientists cultured and multiplied the cells in a process developed by Dr. Marbán. After about a month, the process yielded some 25 million heart cells, some of which literally beat in the dish. In a second brief procedure, doctors went back down the artery blocked during Lesikar’s heart attack and infused the damaged area of the heart with the lab-grown cells.
Lesikar says he began to feel noticeably better within three months of the treatment. His heart’s pumping ability improved over time to roughly the normal range, and the scarred area of his heart shrank by 40 percent as the “dead” cells were replaced with new, healthy ones. Dr. Marbán’s study revealed that in addition to new heart tissue, patients also grew new blood vessels. “Along with the change in exercise and diet, I feel better than I did before the heart attack,” Lesikar says.
The emergence of stem-cell therapies and regenerative medicine have yielded new possibilities in healthcare, with some therapies producing almost-miraculous results, particularly in the areas of heart and eye disease and orthopedic injury. Blood stem cells have been used successfully for decades to treat a variety of serious diseases, most commonly blood cancers. Studies such as Dr. Marbán’s suggest that it is possible to intentionally regrow tissues, even those “that we have always been taught would never, ever regrow under any circumstances,” Dr. Marbán says. If these results can be verified with further studies (and Dr. Marbán’s company, Capricor Therapeutics Inc., is currently engaged in a Phase 2 clinical trial), this opens a world of scientific possibility. “We can look for ways to regrow all sorts of tissues that we have previously consigned to permanent injury. In the case of kidney disease, we might be able to do away with some instances of dialysis. We might make heart transplants obsolete,” he says. “We might even, in the wildest fantasies, reverse memory loss in Alzheimer’s. Who knows? If we can do this kind of thing in one tissue, why not in another?”