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Behfar, working with Dr. Andre Terzic, a Mayo cardiovascular specialist, found that stem cells typically lose their vitality as they age and apparently become “sick” along with the patient. Mayo just finished a clinical trial in Europe showing that they could kick-start those cells in a way that significantly improves the patient’s health, cuts treatment costs and improves quality of life.
Nelson said he thinks stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood and placed into a growing heart will prove even more effective.
“I think of stem cells as seeds,” Nelson said. “If you plant that seed into a rocky, dry soil, that seed may not grow nearly as well as if you plant it into a black, rich, fertile soil that gets watered, irrigated and fertilized,” he said. “And so we think of this as planting these seeds into that fertile soil of a pediatric heart.”
Also, Nelson said, stem cells from the umbilical cord seem to know when to stop producing heart cells, so they don’t create the same cancer concerns that have been associated with the use of “pluripotent” embryonic cells or bioengineered cells in adult hearts.
Too few hearts
Nelson dedicated himself to finding a cure for hypoplastic left heart syndrome when he was studying to become a pediatric heart surgeon. He said it tore him up to know that babies who endured three open heart surgeries would often return as young children with irreparable heart damage and little likelihood of finding a donor heart in time to save them.
Some research suggested that half the children with HLHS don’t make it to their 5th birthday, Nelson said, but there are also children living into their early 20s. “So there are wonderful success stories of the surgical practice,” he said. “But obviously, the percentage of kids born that make it to that stage is far too low.”
Joshua and Sandra Hughes of Ashburn, Va., said they learned about Mayo’s pediatric heart research from a friend. Their 5-year-old daughter, Jaclyn, also has HLHS, and although she gets treated in Washington, D.C., they volunteered to participate in Mayo’s research program.
Jaclyn underwent an MRI last week, and she and her parents each contributed skin tissue for genetic testing and other research. Mayo’s Dr. Patrick O’Leary thanked them for spending two days in Rochester undergoing tests; he showed them images from Jaclyn’s scan and said her heart is performing quite well after her third surgery.
“The stuff they’re working on now may not be available for Jackie,” Sandra Hughes said. “But it may be available for the next generation.”
O’Leary interrupted her, voicing his optimism for the Mayo research.
“It may be available for her, too,” he said.
Kaiser Health reporting intern Ashley Griffin contributed to this story.
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493