Until his recent heart attack, David Kenney of East Moriches was running six miles daily. Now he's a pioneering patient in a clinical study that will determine whether 100 million stem cells infused into his body can fix his ailing heart.
Doctors at Stony Brook University Medical Center are testing a notion that only a few years ago was nothing more than a tantalizing question: Can stem cells zero in on cardiac muscle damaged in a heart attack and force it to regenerate?
"These cells have the ability to protect the tissues and to regenerate tissue, and that's what is needed after a heart attack," said Dr. Luis Gruberg, director of Stony Brook's catheterization laboratories, and principal investigator of the project.
Heart muscle dies at the site of blockage - the heart attack. But if stem cells can infuse new life into the muscle - and doctors believe they can - then the heart can fully regain its ability to synchronously contract.
Gruberg had signed on to the national research project two months ago. What he lacked was the perfect patient - someone who had just experienced a first attack and was otherwise healthy.
"I didn't hesitate," Kenney, 74, said of the offer to participate in the two-hour infusion procedure. He added that the treatment "seemed like an excellent opportunity."
Kenney's progress will be checked routinely. Full results of the study are expected in two years.
Stem cells are blank slates capable of morphing into specialized cells.
Kenney was infused with a type of stem cell known as mesenchymal cells, those drawn from an adult donor, and capable of transforming into muscle. Once infused through an intravenous line, the cells, Gruberg said, seek out inflammation and home in. Inflammation is abundant at the site of blockage.
Even though most heart attack patients, including Kenney, receive stents, tiny mesh tubes to permanently prop open obstructed arteries, stenting cannot revive damaged tissue.
The American Heart Association estimates 600,000 people in the United States will experience a first heart attack this year. Many will suffer some form of permanent cardiac damage, which may prove fatal. An estimated 18 percent of men and 23 percent of women are dead within a year of a first attack.
Kenney at first mistook his heart attack for indigestion. The persistent pain awakened him. Gruberg said it was caused by a chunk of fractured plaque.
The septuagenarian has run the New York City and Boston marathons, and throughout his life has been outdoors exercising. In the mid-1940s, he was a paperboy who walked a looping three-mile route delivering Newsday.
"I am an incurable romantic. Not in the amorous sense, but in the adventurous sense, and this is a real adventure," Kenney said of his role in science.