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Stem Cells To Heal Hearts

The magic of stem cells is showing some early promise for the hundreds of thousands of people in the United States who suffer from crippling chest pain caused by heart disease.

The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay offers the latest details about the innovative therapy.

One of the most debilitating symptoms of heart disease is angina, the chest pain caused as arteries clog and shut off the heart's oxygen supply. Many of the sickest patients get no relief from that pain when treatment options run out. Now, there is new hope from early-stage trials of an experimental therapy using a patient's own stem cells to regenerate the ailing heart.

These days, Texas farmer Robert Young keeps pretty active. But just three months ago, heart disease had put his life on hold.

"My whole life just slowed down to a stop," says Young. "And every time I'd exercise, it'd hurt. Like my heart was in a vise and you're just cranking the vise down."

Despite years of treatment, including angioplasties and bypass surgery, his heart disease got progressively worse.

"I was using as high as 15 nitro pills a day, and walking a hundred yards was a load," Young remembers. "They just said, 'There's no hope left for me, medicine and surgery won't help now."

But there was hope. A groundbreaking experimental therapy at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center of Boston was giving optimism for many others like Young. At the center, doctors extract stem cells from a patient's own bone marrow and inject them back -- directly into the heart -- in the hopes of creating brand new blood vessels to re-supply the heart with oxygen.

"We as adults have cells in our body that can be used to regenerate different tissues," explains Dr. Douglas Losordo. "Simply by putting those cells in an area that lacks a blood supply, they are very clever and the neighboring tissue is clever at sending the signals to those cells that tell them what to become, how to form new blood vessels and how to improve the blood supply."

Although it's not yet known which patients received stem cells and which got a placebo shot, so far there have been remarkable results. Robert Young says he felt better within days.

"I wasn't running a race, but I felt 100 percent better," says Young. "I was walking, no chest pains, and just doing anything. I walk a good hard clip, walk a mile sometimes - two miles a day. My life is back to a normal life."

Losordo says the medical community is really excited about new technology changing the lives of many people for the better.

"There's such a change, just from black to white," says Ruby, Douglas Losordo's wife. "It's just an answer to prayer. It's like a miracle."

The early experiments are building on the pioneering gene therapy research conducted at the same hospital, which, many years later, is still providing benefits to patients. The hope is that the benefits will be long-lasting for this new generation of patients.

In this trial, neither the doctors nor the patients know for sure yet if the injections they received actually contained stem cells or placebo. But, medical experts do know three of four patients who received stem cells also feel a lot better, so far. Patients who got the placebo will still be able to get their stem cells after the first phase of the trial is finished.

The adult stem cells used in the procedure aren't related to the controversial embryonic stem cells.

Senay says the exciting thing about the therapy is that it is a fairly non-invasive procedure and because it uses cells easily available from a patient's own body, rejection is not an issue. The hope is that the stem cells will be able to regenerate not only the blood vessels but, perhaps, also some of those muscle cells that are lost to heart disease.

For more information, please contact: Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center of Boston at 617-779-6394.

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