AUSTIN (KXAN) - At Austin Heart Hospital, research physicians are conducting a stem cell study on heart attack patients that is showing promising results.
The study is still in its second phase, so it's too early to be sure how things will turn out, but Dr. Roger Gammon is very excited.
"It takes people who've had a recent heart attack within the last seven days," Gammon said, "and you actually give them an intravenous infusion. The stem cells find their way to the damaged area and graft there and basically start becoming heart cells and doing some anti-inflammatory reactions that help reduce the amount of scar formation and damage that was done.
"It's so interesting because it's so easy to do. We do it in the clinic a few days later. All the smoke is cleared from the heart attack; the patient is thoroughly screened about safety and then they get this intravenous infusion for 30 minutes and we sit there and watch them. They're just sitting there reading a magazine and then go home later that day. The cells in some 'Star Wars' thing travel through your lungs and get to your heart and then they set up shop there."
Granted, it's still too early to jump for joy, but Gammon is already hopping with hope.
"We don't know who got placebo and who got cells," he said, "but we've seen people that had a major heart attack and a month later, you can't tell they've had a heart attack. It's really remarkable."
It's not just heart attack patients, either. Back in 2000, Dr. James Willerson of the Texas Heart Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center led a group of researchers who got permission to conduct a study on heart failure patients in Brazil.
"Some 70 percent of whom would be dead three years later," Willerson told a stem cell symposium in Austin this week, "and all of whom couldn't walk from here to the wall without getting very short of breath, and most of whom could not put their head down flat to sleep because they can't breathe."
The research team injected the patients' own adult stem cells from their bone marrow directly into their hearts.
"Within two months, the patients we treated had significantly better blood flow to their heart and better contraction of their heart," Willerson said, 'and some who couldn't walk from here to this wall were jogging on the beach in Rio."
It is this kind of thing that has the medical community thrilled with the prospects of health care in all sorts of areas. Bone marrow derived stem cells are also being used to fuse spines to heal and protect damaged sections of spinal cord. At the University of Texas, doctoral candidate Daria Neidre is studying possibilities of using stem cells from fat tissue for the same purpose. That's important because human beings carry ten times as many stem cells in their fat tissue than in their bone marrow.
The list of possibilities is a long one.
"Almost every disease you can think of," said Dr. Darwin Prockop from the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine at Scott & White in Temple. "Arthritis, intestinal diseases, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis."
Prockop, a pioneer in the stem cell field, was recruited to Texas from Tulane University, drawn by funding to establish the institute, funding that included money from the "Governor's Emerging Technology Fund."
That's where the dark clouds begin to form. With the state facing a $10 billion to $21 billion budget shortfall, depending on whom you talk to, the money bags will be squeezed hard in the coming legislative session.
At that same stem cell symposium, conducted at UT's Thompson Conference Center Wednesday, State Sen. Kirk Watson told assembled doctors, researchers and educators that things would be tough.
"I'm never going to say never on something like this, particularly something this important," the Austin Democrat said. "But as we go in, most of what is going to be focused on is how it is that we maintain what we already have."
The senator is pushing for reforms in the way the state budget is drawn up that he said will limit the damage, reforms that he said do not include a state personal income tax, an idea he believes has no chance of passage. Still, he doubts there will be significant new help for stem cell research in 2011.
That in no way discourages David Bale, the Austinite who founded Texans for Stem Cell Research three years ago. It is that organization that sponsored this week's symposium, and Bale is pushing for a new central Stem Cell Therapy Center here in Austin by 2014, using public and private money.
"I lost my daddy, Larry Bales, the old proprietor of Scholz Beer Garden, when he was 53 years old, of heart disease and diabetes 17 years ago," Bales said. "I've worked in and around the Capitol my whole life, and about four years ago I read the tea leaves and I didn't think anybody was really getting after stem cell research the way it needed to be. To make things move faster, these doctors need more funding, and
so our goal is to get these like minds in the same room, let the universities and the private donors and the foundations see that there's a revolution in the air. If we can all get on the same page, there's a chance we might be able to make this happen."
The research efforts supported by TSCR do not use stem cells from aborted embryos, a practice that continues to generate considerable controversy. Instead, discarded embryonic cells from fertilization clinics are used, with the informed consent of the donors, along with adult stem cells.
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