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Man's heart saved by his own stem cells

February 3, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
For the first time in the United States, one man's heart has been saved by his own stem cells.

It's an amazing medical breakthrough. The science behind the technique made it possible for a man to literally save his own life through his stem cells.

John Christy is the first person in the U.S. to have his own bone marrow stem cells injected into his heart to save his heart.

"All you're doing is giving back to yourself something you already have," said Christy

This Vietnam veteran was suffering from severe coronary artery disease.

"I was just thinking, 'You're getting old, you're just tiring out and getting weary bones.' I felt tingling. My legs had been swelling a little bit," said Christy.

In one procedure, cardiothoracic surgeon Joseph Woo at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine is taking science from bench to bedside. After five years of research in animals, he is now retrieving stem cells from Christy's bone marrow and using them to grow blood vessels around the heart.

"They form brand new micro blood vessels and deliver blood flow to the heart muscle," said Woo.

He has started the first U.S. trial where stem cells are harvested during surgery, prepped and then re-inserted back into the patient's own heart.

Results for Christy were seen almost immediately.

"I noticed two days after my surgery, I had much more 'umph,'" said Christy.

It's the same process that saved 76-year-old Christina McDonald, only it wasn't arteries in her heart that were damaged. McDonald's problem was in her legs.

"Sort of like a charley-horse where the muscles stiffen up," said McDonald.

The arteries in her leg were clogged with plaque, putting her at risk for heart attack, stroke and amputation. Traditionally, doctors treat it with stents, angioplasties or bypasses. But now they're using stem cells.

"We basically take stem cells from their hips to help grow blood vessels. It creates new, smaller blood vessels that give blood supply to the limb," said Dr. Randall Franz, a vascular surgeon at Grant Medical Center.

It worked for McDonald. Three months later, her pain is gone.

The same goes for Christy. His only wish is that science was working faster. He lost his wife to heart disease one year ago.

"I wish that she could have had this," said Christy.

A similar procedure is being done in Europe. The difference is Woo does his in one short surgery.

In Europe, it takes at least two procedures, weeks apart.

Woo says any patient who is a candidate for coronary bypass surgery is a good candidate for his stem-cell transplant.

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