Stem cell revolution gets closer

Edgar Irastorza was just 31 when his heart stopped beating in October 2008.

A Miami property manager, Irastorza had recently gained weight as his wife's third pregnancy progressed. "I kind of got pregnant, too," he said.

During a workout one day, he felt short of breath and insisted that friends rush him to the hospital. Minutes later, his pulse flatlined. He survived the heart attack, but the scar tissue that resulted cut his heart's pumping ability by a third. He couldn't pick up his children. He fell asleep every night wondering if he would wake up in the morning.

Desperation motivated Irastorza to volunteer for a highly unusual medical research trial: getting stem cells injected directly into his heart. "I just trusted my doctors and the science behind it, and said, 'This is my only chance,' " he said recently.

Over the last five years, by studying stem cells in lab dishes, test animals and intrepid patients like Irastorza, researchers have brought the vague, grandiose promises of stem cell therapies closer to reality.

Stem cells broke into the public consciousness in the early 1990s, alluring for their potential to help the body beat back diseases of degeneration like Alzheimer's, and to grow new parts to treat conditions like spinal cord injuries.

Progress has been slow. But researchers are learning how to best use stem cells, what types to use and how to deliver them to the body findings that are not singularly transformational, but progressive and pragmatic.

As many as 4,500 clinical trials involving stem cells are under way in the United States to treat patients with heart disease, blindness, Parkinson's, HIV, blood cancers and spinal cord injuries, among other conditions.

Initial studies suggest that stem cell therapy can be delivered safely, said Dr. Ellen Feigal, senior vice president of research and development at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the state stem cell agency, which has awarded more than $2 billion toward stem cell research since 2006.

But enthusiasm for stem cells sometimes outstrips the science. When Gov. Rick Perry of Texas had adult stem cells injected into his spine in 2011 for a back injury, his surgeon had never tried the procedure and had no data to support the experiment. A June review in the New England Journal of Medicine found that "platelet-rich plasma" stem cell therapies praised by a number of athletes worked no better than placebos.

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Stem cell revolution gets closer

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