Stem cells reverse heart damage

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - In 2003, Melvin Walker lay  on an exam table of a Charlotte Hospital. He had suffered a massive heart attack that destroyed a large portion of tissue in his heart.

"I worked in concrete for about 23 years and started having heart attacks," said Melvin.

Several years later, Melvin's heart took additional beatings.

"And they've just been coming one right after the other."

"I'm just lucky that I can feel them coming and I go to the hospital."

So far Melvin has suffered four heart attacks and has had six stents put in place.

In patients like Melvin whose attacks are severe, the heart gets so scarred cardiac tissue no longer performs efficiently.

"After the procedure, it's like turning the light switch on," said Melvin.

"It all comes back. It took a little time, but it all comes back."

Doctors with Novant Health are taking part of clinical trial designed to use stem cell therapy to help in the recovery of the heart muscle. This procedure would regenerate tissue that otherwise would be forever damaged and some patients are already seeing promising results.

"We do a cardiac MRI to measure the amount of heart damage. If it's severe enough, we will then approach the patient and see if they want to be enrolled into the trial,"said Dr. Robert Iwaoka the Medical Director Novant Health Heart and Vascular Institute at the Charlotte Campus.

The procedure has to be done several days after a patient's heart attack.

A onetime infusion of a patient's own stem cells is pumped into the heart muscle that was recently damaged by a heart attack.

"These cells are infused to the damaged area of the heart," said Dr. Iwaoka.

"They will hone into that area take up actual residence, stay in that area of damage and start recruiting other cells to help in the repair process."

So far, the trial has proven to give heart attack victims a second chance in repairing their muscle.

For Melvin it has offered him relief.

"I was at the point of death and they helped me."

Right now doctors are in phase 2 of the clinical trial. If it shows positive data, researchers will launch a phase 3 trial and push for FDA approval. Doctors say because the patient's own stem cells are used, you avoid transplant rejection and it eliminates ethical issues.

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