For 59-year-old heart attack patient, TV news leads to role in clinical trial

The last thing Fred Lesikar expected was a heart attack.

"I felt a little tightness across my chest and back, but I thought I must have pulled a muscle while playing with my granddaughter," Lesikar said. "I was only 59. I thought I was too young for a heart attack."

Minutes later, the pain worsened and Lesikar went to the emergency room at the hospital near his home in Menifee, Calif. The diagnosis: A major heart attack had reduced his heart function by more than 30 percent.

"But the scariest thing to me was that I couldn't do anything to reverse the damage," said Lesikar, a semiretired small-business owner. "With most other medical conditions, you can take medicine or have an operation. But the doctors treating me told me that there was no way to repair a heart damaged by a heart attack."

The following week, Lesikar was watching TV news when he saw a story about the groundbreaking stem cell treatment developed by Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, then being tested in a clinical trial. He called Cedars-Sinai and asked to join the study.

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Now, he's one of 17 heart attack patients who received an infusion of their own cardiac stem cells in the Cedars-Sinai clinical trial. Newly released results from it show that treating heart attack patients with an infusion of their own cardiac stem cells enabled their damaged hearts to regrow healthy muscle while shrinking by an average of 42 percent the scars left by the heart attack.

"This has never been accomplished before, despite a decade of cell therapy trials for patients with heart attacks," said Marbán, the Mark S. Siegel Family professor and director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. "Now we have done it. The effects are huge, actually bigger in humans than they were in animal tests."

The patients – average age of 53 years – who participated in the study experienced heart attacks that left them with damaged heart muscle. Each patient underwent extensive imaging scans so doctors could pinpoint the exact location and severity of the scars wrought by the heart attack. Eight patients served as controls in the study, receiving conventional medical care for heart attack survivors, including prescription medicine, exercise recommendations and dietary advice.

The patients who were randomized to receive the stem cells underwent a minimally invasive biopsy, under local anesthesia. Using a catheter inserted through a vein in the patient's neck, doctors removed small pieces of heart tissue, about half the size of a raisin. The biopsied heart tissue was then taken to Marbán's specialized lab at Cedars-Sinai, using methods he invented to culture and multiply the cells.

In the third and final step, the now-multiplied stem cells – approximately 12 million to 25 million – were reintroduced into the patient's coronary arteries in a second, minimally invasive catheter procedure.

"We believe the stem cells may encourage and amplify the heart's own innate healing mechanism," Marbán said.

But Lesikar says he doesn't need anyone to tell him what he already knows. "Today I'm feeling super," he said, "better than I did before the heart attack."

The process to grow cardiac-derived stem cells involved in the study was developed earlier by Marbán when he was on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University. The university has filed for a patent on that intellectual property, and has licensed it to a company in which Marbán has a financial interest. No funds from that company were used to support the clinical study.All funding was derived from the National Institutes of Health and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.