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Suburban Hospital

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The Promise of Stem Cells

When he was only 26, Michael Downs suffered a heart attack. Five surgeries and three more heart attacks left him with nine stents, a pacemaker, and a defibrillator. Quadruple-bypass surgery in 2008 led to severe pain, breathlessness after walking just a few yards, and the inability to continue working.

In 2012, Downs's own stem cells saved his life. At Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, director of cardiothoracic surgery Keith Horvath performed a laser transmyocardial revascularization (TMR), a procedure he helped develop in the 1990s that uses a special laser to create small channels in the heart muscle, improving blood flow. What was different about this surgery was that it was the first time TMR had ever been combined with the injection of stem cells.

Through years of research and experimenting with pig-bone marrow, Horvath and his team at Suburban's NIH Heart Center--a partnership with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute--discovered that bone-marrow cells facilitated the growth of blood vessels to the heart, improving blood flow and strengthening the heart muscle.

The stem cells used in Downs's surgery were taken from marrow in his hip. Just a week after the operation--for the first time in ten years--Downs was able to walk for an hour without chest pain.

Horvath and his team are researching other types of stem cells that could grow not just blood vessels but an entire heart muscle. "A lot of patients have been told there isn't any other option--they're told to do less or cut back their activity," Horvath says. "Our biggest challenge is making sure patients know there are options."

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Posted at 10:30 AM/ET, 10/28/2014
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