Medical investigators are embarking on a study that involves infusing 10 million stem cells directly into a coronary artery of heart attack patients in an effort to regenerate tissue that otherwise would be forever damaged.
Regeneration has been an ongoing theme in science fiction and a goal of real-life scientists.
Dr. Luis Gruberg, of the Stony Brook Heart Institute, and Dr. Allen Jeremias, director of the intensive care unit, led a team late last month in a novel case, which they describe as a clinical trial designed to harvest, and then inject, a patient's own stem cells into the blocked artery responsible for the attack.
"This is a post-heart attack procedure and it is for patients who have had a large heart attack," said Gruberg, director of interventional cardiology research.
In patients whose attacks are severe, vast portions of the heart are irreparably damaged, resulting in cardiac tissue that no longer performs efficiently.
Every year about 715,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of those, 525,000 are a first heart attack and 190,000 are repeat episodes. Every 44 seconds someone in the United States dies of a heart attack, according to federal data.
If stem cells can aid in the remodeling of the heart, regenerating healthy tissue, then medicine can offer patients a new lease on life, the doctors said.
Arriving at a point when such a treatment can be offered, Gruberg added, requires research. The gold standard of clinical study in Western medicine is the placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial, which means some of the Stony Brook heart patients will receive a stem cell transplant, others, a placebo.
Doctors began their study, part of a larger national investigation, abruptly late last month because they had been awaiting the perfect patient.
That person, a 66-year-old man who had been visiting Long Island from the Midwest, arrived at Stony Brook University Hospital as a transfer from Southampton Hospital.
"It was a blessing," said the patient who requested anonymity. "A heart attack isn't a blessing, but the gestalt of how everything worked out was a blessing in disguise. I couldn't have been luckier."
He said the episode was his third heart attack, which occurred while swimming.
Aware of Stony Brook's expertise in treating massive heart attacks -- and the heart institute's stem cell research -- Southampton doctors stabilized and transferred him.
The question mark confronting the patient is not knowing whether stem cells were harvested from his bone marrow or whether he has undergone a placebo procedure.
"I don't know if I got the stem cells or cornflakes," he said jokingly.
Gruberg couldn't answer that question, either.
Stem cells are veritable blank slates capable of morphing into highly specialized cells. Those derived from embryos have raised a firestorm of controversy, but stem cells also can be harvested from various tissues in the adult body.
These are so-called adult stem cells, which maintain an extraordinary capacity to assume the characteristics of the tissue into which they're introduced.
In the case of the Stony Brook research, doctors are investigating so-called autologous stem cells, which are derived from the patient's own body, in this case the bone marrow.
"He tolerated the procedure very well," Gruberg said.
This is the second time in three years that Gruberg and colleagues have participated in a cardiac stem cell study.
In 2010, East Moriches marathon runner David Kenney became the first Long Islander to receive a stem cell infusion to regenerate heart tissue. The stem cells he received, however, were donor cells.
Gruberg said Kenney, 77, has resumed distance running.