Someday, every heart-attack survivor might have a story like John Hubin’s.
A few weeks after his trip to the emergency room last March, he drove himself to Abbott Northwestern Hospital early one morning and got an injection of 25 million stem cells.
The next day, he went home to Hector, Minn., and was back at work 24 hours later, feeling, he said, “like a million bucks.”
As a treatment for heart disease, stem cells are still more fantasy than reality. But that’s slowly changing, with the help of patients like Hubin, 60, at a special heart-disease clinic at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis.
The clinic, run by Dr. Tim Henry, has quietly become one of the leading stem-cell research centers in the country. In the past few years, about 400 of its patients have taken part in a raft of cutting-edge studies, all designed to use the body’s own cells to repair the damage from cardiovascular disease.
What they’ve found hasn’t always been cause for celebration.
But Henry and other scientists believe that they are edging closer to the long-awaited stem-cell revolution. There are early signs, for example, that it’s helping to grow new blood vessels, which could offer new hope to people with incurable blockages.
If those studies continue to pan out, it’s a potential “game changer,” says Dr. Jason Alexander, a fellow researcher at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.
Henry, a cardiologist, has spent more than a decade specializing in what he calls “no option” patients — people with debilitating heart disease and no cure in sight. Medicine is helping them live longer, he said, but their quality of life is suffering. Some can barely walk a block without chest pain, and it only gets worse over time. “These people have been told that they really have no hope,” he said.
With them in mind, he created what he calls the OPTIMIST Clinic, and started seeking answers in stem cells — nature’s own way of rejuvenating tissue.
John Hubin didn’t set out to be a human guinea pig. On March 26, Hubin, who publishes a chain of weekly newspapers, woke up feeling like someone was rubbing bricks across his rib cage. He had felt breathless a week before, but now he knew he was in trouble. Skipping the 911 call, he asked his wife to drive him to the nearest hospital, 14 miles away. (“I just figured we’ll be fine,” he says.)
At Renville County Hospital in Olivia, he remembers being whisked through the hallway past a room he recognized. “It’s the room where my Dad died,” he said, “from a heart attack.”
It was no surprise that heart disease ran in Hubin’s family. Several uncles on both sides of the family had died of heart attacks as well. But it wasn’t until Hubin was in his late 50s, he says, that he started taking his health seriously; he quit drinking, changed his diet, lost 73 pounds.
In the hospital hallway, he heard the nurse shout as he was prepped for an emergency helicopter ride. “Seven minutes,” she called out. The clock had started ticking the moment he entered the ER. They had just 90 minutes, according to hospital protocol, to get him to Abbott Northwestern, where specialists could open his blockages.
Hours later, as he was recovering in his hospital bed in Minneapolis, Hubin learned that this wasn’t his first heart attack. A doctor told him there was scarring on his heart.
“He said: ‘Believe me, you had more than one. I just don’t know how long ago.’ ”
That same afternoon, Kathy Beattie, a research nurse, approached him about the stem-cell study. His heart had extensive damage; this might improve it. “I decided, you know, what the heck,” said Hubin, who has four children and 13 grandchildren. Maybe, he thought, this could help his family “down the line.”
Until recently, scientists thought that a damaged heart could never be repaired. But Henry, among others, is betting that stem cells can change that.
These are not, he point outs, the embryonic stem cells that caused an ethical uproar several years ago. Henry’s experiments use adult stem cells, which are found in everyone’s fat tissue, bone marrow and other parts of the body.
“When you cut your skin and it heals — that’s stem cells,” he said. “You bleed and you create new red blood cells — that’s stem cells.”
What Henry is trying to do, as part of a national consortium of federally funded researchers, is to see if they can “train” stem cells to grow new blood vessels or heart muscle in a way that actually helps patients.
So far, it’s been a frustrating search, measured in small successes and frequent disappointments.
Many stem-cell experiments have been “resoundingly negative,” according to a 2011 report in the journal Nature, titled “The Stuttering Progress of Cell Therapy for Heart Disease.” When tested in patients, the effect has been “inconsistent, and overall, modest,” the authors wrote. “At present, the ‘perfect’ stem cell remains elusive.”
But Henry insists he’s not discouraged. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount,” he said.
One lesson: Not all stem cells are equal. And younger people have better stem cells than their elders. “We know that, as you get older, [the] number of stem cells and potency declines,” he said. As we age, he said, “that process wears out.”
That’s one reason he was excited about the experiment that John Hubin was about to undergo. Instead of receiving his own [60-year-old] stem cells, these would come from a healthy young donor.
The cells arrived, packed in dry ice, by overnight courier from Capricor Inc., the California company that’s sponsoring the trial at Abbott.
Hubin, covered in blue sterile draping on a gurney, is awake and chatty, though he won’t remember it later.
Henry threads a syringe with the reddish fluid into his patient’s wrist, and glances at an overhead monitor as it flows through a catheter into Hubin’s heart.
“We’re already infusing the cells, Mr. Hubin,” says Beattie, the research nurse.
Hubin notices an odd sensation. “It tastes like hell,” he says.
Ten minutes later, Henry announces: “We’re done.”
For the next year, Hubin will return for periodic checkups to see if the stem cells are doing any good.
Dr. Eduardo Marbán, director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles (and a founder of Capricor, the stem-cell company) calls Henry “the leading figure nationally in clinical trials of stem cells.”
And this fall, Henry is heading to Cedars-Sinai to become the new chief of cardiology. He’s vowed to return to Minnesota regularly to oversee his ongoing research projects. The OPTIMIST Clinic, and research, will continue with the other doctors on his team.
Marban said he and Henry share the same goal: “To make stem cells a realistic treatment option for heart disease.”
Exactly when that may happen, though, is anyone’s guess.
“Over-hype is part of the problem,” Henry said. “Stem-cell therapy is just like any other therapy. You have to go through the hard work.” And wait until the science proves them right.