Regrowing Damaged Organs no Longer Stuff of Science Fiction

timeismuscleI have only one regret from my heart attack experience in 2011, and that is that I waited two days from the onset of symptoms to seek treatment. Aside from the fact that I very likely could have died during those 48 hours, the time I waited very likely caused more damage to my heart than if I had gone to the hospital right away. In the heart attack business, time is muscle.

It’s a sobering experience to hear your cardiologist say that part of your heart is dead, but that’s exactly what happens to your heart when oxygen is cut off. In my case, I lost about 15 percent of my heart muscle in the area at the lower left ventricle known as the apex. Because of this dead muscle, I have what the doctor calls left ventricular hypokinesis. Basically, it means my heart doesn’t contract as much as most people’s hearts resulting in a lower ejection fraction.

This means my heart doesn’t pump out as much blood as a normal heart, which is no big deal until it gets too low (an ejection fraction of 50 percent or lower is considered reduced) and if it gets down below 40 or so it means you are in heart failure. At the time of my heart attack my ejection fraction was around 35-40, but today it’s in the 55-60 range which is at the low end of normal. Lucky me.

Every cardiologist I’ve seen, and everything I’ve read, says heart muscle damage is permanent. But as college football broadcaster Lee Corso says — not so fast my friends!

Medical science is progressing at a breakneck speed. Just think about coronary stents for example. It seems like they’ve been around forever, but the first one was inserted into a human in 1986 (just 32 years ago). If I had the very same heart attack in 1985 I’d be walking around with a 90 percent blocked left anterior (LAD) descending artery (also known as the widowmaker) instead of having three stents. Or more than likely I’d be dead.

Which brings me to that dead heart muscle. This week in the magazine Nature I read about a new procedure that will be done on three patients in Japan. Doctors at Osaka University will take thin sheets of tissue derived from cells and graft them onto diseased human hearts. The team expects that the tissue sheets can help to regenerate the organ’s muscle when it becomes damaged.

If this works as it has in lab animals, these doctors will in effect reverse thousands of years of medical orthodoxy. Time may be muscle, but science is more powerful than current knowledge.

This experiment is part of a field known as regenerative medicine. Rejuvenating or regrowing human tissue has limitless possibilities for medical science, and while the field is in its infancy it feels like every day we hear about a new breakthrough. Just a few years ago scientists grew a complete human bladder outside the body, and we’re not very far from the ability to grow more complex organs to use for transplantation. How long before scientists can grow a human heart that can be used to replace failing ones? The stuff of “science fiction” is no longer outside the realm of possibility.

I recently read Never Let Me Go by Nobel Prize winner Kazou Ishiguro. Spoiler alert: it’s about clones who are created to harvest replacement organs. But given the direction of real science, the dystopian world laid out by Ishiguro will not be needed!

This is a long way of stating that I am grateful for medical science. In fact, science is the closest thing I have to a religion. I put my faith in regenerative medicine, CRISPR, biotechnology, immunology, and everything else that involves the scientific method. My heroes are scientists, doctors, and inventors. They bring me peace of mind and hope for the future.

My heart damage is probably not severe enough to warrant stem cell therapy or regenerative cell sheets. But it’s nice to know if things get worse for me, or as science continues to progress, my heart could easily be fixed. Permanently.

I ♥ science!

The One Thing You Should Do Today if You’re at Risk for a Heart Attack

1_lp5iquleQM96kgSkir-iegAs a heart attack survivor, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to hundreds of people about my experience. Whether I’m sharing the story over dinner with friends or blogging about the day of my cardiac event, one particular question always seems to pop up: what can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen to me?

People have preconceived notions about who is at risk for a heart attack and unfortunately these assumptions are usually very wrong. Most of us think heart attacks only happen to overweight people, or sedentary people, or smokers. People look at me and see themselves and it freaks them out. True, I didn’t have any outwardly apparent risks for heart disease, but below the surface I was a ticking time bomb. My triglycerides were significantly elevated. My high-density lipoprotein (HDL or good cholesterol) was low. My blood sugar was borderline high. My family history was chock-full of heart disease. I had what is commonly known as Metabolic Syndrome or Syndrome X — a cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Metabolic syndrome occurs when a person has three or more of the following measurements:

  • Abdominal obesity (Waist circumference of greater than 40 inches in men, and greater than 35 inches in women)
  • Triglyceride level of 150 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL) or greater
  • HDL cholesterol of less than 40 mg/dL in men or less than 50 mg/dL in women
  • Systolic blood pressure (top number) of 130 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or greater, or diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) of 85 mm Hg or greater
  • Fasting glucose of 100 mg/dL or greater

I had three of the above symptoms, all hidden below the surface. And I knew about it. And I tried to fix it on and off for years by adjusting my diet and exercising more. But I still had a heart attack at 45.

What could I have done to avoid having a heart attack?

When people ask me that question (and they always do), I say the same thing: if you have three or more of the signs of Metabolic Syndrome, or a family history of heart disease, and are over the age of 40 — go get a coronary artery calcium (CAC) scan.

Right now you’re probably thinking how come you’ve never heard of this test. Is this something new? It’s not new, and has been around since the early 90s, but for a long time it has been seen by many cardiologists as not reliable enough to recommend for their patients. But that is changing, as discussed in a newly published article by Harvard Health Publishing, and as evidenced by the growing number of hospitals and diagnostic labs that offer the test.

“CAC results can help identify a person’s possible risk for heart attack or stroke, even if that person doesn’t have the obvious risk factors or symptoms,” says Dr. Jorge Plutzky, director of preventive cardiology at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “It can be a way for some people to get the necessary treatment early and hopefully head off a serious cardiac event.”

If I’d had a CAC at a local hospital prior to having a heart attack on Oct. 15, 2011 it’s very likely the test would have shown that I had a severe blockage in my left anterior descending artery. Instead of having the heart attack that nearly killed me and permanently damaged my heart, the test results would have tipped off doctors that I was in danger and they could have gone in and stented the artery before the damage was done.

I’m not saying everyone should run out and get a CAC. But if you are at risk for heart disease it’s a valuable tool in the arsenal and it just might save your life. And while insurance companies aren’t yet sold on its value (and since when have insurance companies cared about your health), it’s a relatively inexpensive test and in most places you don’t even need a referral from a doctor. That’s right, you can use Google to find a test location near you, make an appointment, and plop down less than $100 for a 15 minute non-invasive test that might save your life.

That seems like a small price to pay for peace of mind.