Zenon Mandryk became a vital statistic in September when he had a heart attack.
He's hoping to become a statistic in a far more beneficial way by helping to prove that algae plays a role in repairing a damaged heart.
Mandryk, 64, signed on as a test subject at Stony Brook University Hospital, where doctors are testing a compound containing algae as its active ingredient. In the international clinical trial, doctors inject the compound into the heart to try to prevent changes in the organ's architecture that inevitably occur after a heart attack.
Algae, among Earth's original life forms, are simple nonflowering plants, such as seaweeds. They contain chlorophyll -- the green protein plants use to convert sunlight into energy.
Whether algae can aid an ailing heart is a question that medical scientists hope to answer.
"I am told it was really severe," Mandryk said of his heart attack. He added that his Stony Brook medical team told him the devastating episode obstructed blood flow, choked off his heart's oxygen supply and nearly stole his life.
The golf caddie, who splits his time between Hampton Bays in summer and West Palm Beach, Florida, in winter, said he was rushed into a Stony Brook catheterization laboratory immediately after the heart attack. Cath labs are the centers in hospitals where doctors conduct minimally invasive cardiac procedures, such as inserting stents to open blocked coronary arteries. Stents are tiny mesh-like tubes that push plaque to the sides of an artery, re-establishing blood flow.
Mandryk received a stent, but his doctors asked him to participate in the algae trial, even though the double-blind study offered no assurances that he would receive the actual therapy. He joined the trial of 300 people, seven from Long Island, at Stony Brook, the only test site in the region and one of two in New York.
The injection was given only once, but cardiac monitoring is required, so Mandryk has to come in for checkups every three months.
Dr. Luis Gruberg, director of research in interventional cardiovascular medicine, said he brought the trial to Stony Brook because there are so few options for patients like Mandryk, who have had massive heart attacks. Mandryk also has a history of heart disease, he said.
"Patients who have had a recent large heart attack will experience a remodeling of the heart," Gruberg said Thursday, adding that the organ becomes progressively inefficient, which leads to heart failure.
Remodeling, Gruberg said, means the heart's walls become thin and the entire organ begins to enlarge and take on a rounded shape. The architectural change, he added, renders the heart a poor pump incapable of withstanding the turbulence of normal blood flow. Such cardiac insufficiency lies at the core of heart failure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 720,000 people in the United States will have a heart attack this year. But the agency also says that about 5.1 million people nationwide are living with heart failure, and that 1 in 9 deaths have heart failure as a contributing cause. About half of those diagnosed with heart failure die within five years.
Gruberg said he wasn't surprised to learn that algae might possibly help to prevent heart failure. "It's a biological material and it has been useful in other ways," he said.
Billions of years ago, algae helped oxygenate Earth and transform it from a sweltering and airless orb incapable of supporting complex life to a planet that has given rise to countless species. Some scientists are studying ways to use algae as a biofuel, while others promote it as a low-calorie food source.
The algae-based treatment was developed by scientists at Ikaria, a health-care company with divisions in New Jersey and Australia. It is injected into the heart as sodium algenate in the cath lab using the same technology doctors use to deliver a stent. That means threading a catheter through an artery to reach the heart.
Dr. Douglas Greene, an Ikaria executive vice president, said the hope is to get the treatment approved as a medical device because the algae-based substance is not acting as a medication but a structural component supporting the heart's architecture.
Greene said in a statement "the fact that it provides structural support to the heart without any metabolic effect on the body" is why his firm chose the medical-device pathway.
Gruberg noted that the experimental treatment is technically known as a "bioabsorbable cardiac matrix" made largely from a type of brown seaweed also used in food products. The matrix transforms into a gel when it combines with calcium in the damaged area of the heart. And the gel, Gruberg said, acts "like a cast or a mesh that supports the damaged area of the heart."
Mandryk, meanwhile, has no idea whether he got the actual matrix or a placebo.
"I feel great," he said last week, five months after treatment. "I can only say that I hope I got the real thing."