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.