Stem cell pioneer

Jessica Pasley
Published: October, 2007

On March 11, 2007, John Plummer, a 63-year-old English professor of Vanderbilt University, became the first person in Tennessee to undergo a novel therapy to repair his heart.

John Plummer, Ph.D.
Photo by Susan Urmy
About a week after suffering a heart attack, doctors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center siphoned off some of his bone marrow, then shipped the sample off to Amorcyte, Inc., a New Jersey-based biotechnology company that is developing cell therapy products to treat cardiovascular disease.

After processing and enriching the sample to promote the development of stem cells, the company sent the sample back to Vanderbilt, where it was injected into Plummer’s coronary artery, from where preliminary studies suggest the cells will diffuse into the his heart muscle.

Plummer, who has taught at Vanderbilt for 36 years, said that while he realized there are no guarantees, “it was the prospect of improvement—any improvement—that made it worth it.”

Vanderbilt is one of three centers, along with Emory University in Atlanta and Texas Heart Institute in Houston, participating in the Phase 1 clinical trial sponsored by Amorcyte. The trial, which began last November, is testing whether bone marrow stem cells can aid the recovery and regeneration of heart muscle following a heart attack.

Vanderbilt also is part of the Cardiac Cell Therapy Research Network, sponsored by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

The network, which includes the Texas Heart Institute, University of Minnesota, University of Florida and the Cleveland Clinic, , and is expected to launch the United States into the international field of cardiac will implement phase 2 studies in patients with cardiac disease to explore the effects of cell therapies on the regeneration of the heart muscle.

One of the major obstacles in treating patients after a heart attack is the inability to repair the damaged muscle. In about 20 percent of heart attack patients, the muscle loss is permanent, which leads to worsening of the heart function and, ultimately, heart failure.

“We can treat a lot of diseases affecting the heart… (but) we have not made significant strides in the fact that we can do nothing more than treat symptoms in patients with a dying heart,” said David Zhao, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory.

“What we hope is to one day be able to treat the entire heart without surgery, and use the bone marrow cells to repair the heart,” Zhao said.

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