His Stem Cell Procedure was a Valentine's Day Miracle
Valentine's Day of 2013 will truly always be “Heart Day” in the eyes of Carthage businessman Ken Andrus and his family. On February 14, 2013, Ken had a double-blind stem cell procedure done as part of a research program through The Texas Heart Institute at St Luke’s Hospital in Houston. (The term “double-blind” means that neither the patient nor the physician knows whether the patient is receiving actual stem cells or a placebo.)
Ken’s heart issues began when he was 38 years old with his first heart attack. It was sudden and unexpected; he had never had previous problems, symptoms, or indications of heart problems. His heart history after that, however, is intense: a second heart attack, countless tests and procedures, open heart surgery in 1994 after his second heart attack (after tests revealed five blockages), and a major incident in January of 2010 resulting in implantation of a pacemaker and defibrillator. At that time his Longview cardiologist gave his family the grave diagnosis:
Ken was in heart failure, and there was nothing more that could be done for him. At that time his EF (letters standing for ejection fraction, a measure of heart function) was in the low 20s, and he was given no hope of improvement.
Not willing to accept the verdict that nothing more could be done, he and his wife Belinda began their search for other options and a second opinion. Thanks to the efforts of dear friend Tena Tiller, RN, LSU Health Shreveport, they were fortunate to get an immediate appointment with Dr. James Willerson, president emeritus of The University of Texas Health Science Center and medical director of The Heart Institute at St Luke’s. They were incredulous at how quickly this very prominent physician responded and scheduled an appointment after hearing Ken’s story. Dr. Willerson has impeccable credentials and worked in his early career with heart surgery and transplant pioneers Drs. Denton Cooley and Michael DeBakey. The family was amazed and delighted with Dr. Willerson’s encouraging words, “You are not without hope. I can help you.” He offered Ken several options for treatment, and over the next three years did extensive testing and experimented with many different drugs to treat him.
In 2013, Ken had a conversation about the stem cell research program at St. Luke’s with Dr. Willerson. At that time Dr. Willerson was working closely with Dr. Emerson Perin, Director of the Stem Cell Center at St Luke’s; they had been directly involved in seminal research in the use of stem cells for the repair of hearts and cardiovascular vessels injured by heart attacks. They were responsible for major discoveries and landmark publications, and for Texas Heart Institute being awarded the first FDA-approved clinical trial in the use of adult, human stem cells to treat ischemic cardiomyopathies and congestive heart failure in humans. They were enrolling suitable candidates into a double-blind stem cell research program (ATHENA). After passing each and every test that comprised the rigorous screening process used to determine suitability, Ken was accepted into the study and had his procedure. It consisted of having his own stem cells harvested from his abdominal adipose tissue through liposuction and the cells then being processed through a Cytori machine to extract the stem cells from the fat. Millions of stem cells were then strategically injected directly into Ken’s heart by Dr. Perin, who targeted the areas with the most damage. Within a few months, Ken “knew without really knowing” that he had received the actual therapy and not the placebo. He began to feel better, had more energy, and was able to tolerate much more activity. He literally went from not being able to walk to the end of his driveway to leading a normal life again.
Ken says, “I recall that the trial was going to involve about 200 patients and three or four hospitals across the country. I was recipient #5 in Houston to be accepted. Trials like this are initiated to hopefully prove that new methods are scientifically worthy to get approved by the FDA for routine use. The trials are laborious and take a long time to study and document. Dr. Willerson and Dr. Perin had done work in Brazil and France, where medical research is not as restrictive as it is in the U.S., so I was relieved to know I was not a complete guinea pig; they had experienced success with their procedure in other places.”
He says, “Texas Heart Institute's stem cell procedure is a miracle in the making. Today, I'm living a life full of energy with my wife and four children. It gave me a second chance at life, and moreover, it gave my wife back her husband, my children their father, and my now five grandchildren their grandfather!”
Belinda adds, “Earlier this year we were officially notified that Ken had in fact received the actual stem cell therapy and not the placebo. Of course, we knew in our hearts (literally!!) that this was the case because of the remarkable changes and improvements Ken had experienced. He is able to work and live a normal life, and his EF is now in a range of 35-39, which is remarkable! But even though we 'knew,' we still celebrated at hearing that wonderful confirmation! Without a doubt, to God be the glory!!”
Ken emphasizes, “I do not want this article to be about Ken Andrus, but rather about the miraculous advances because of this research and other similar programs. About the value of getting a second opinion. About not being afraid to go to big cities that have research centers and teaching hospitals. Every time we go, there are doctors and other medical personnel shadowing Dr. Willerson, listening to what he says and soaking up everything they can possibly glean from him. As part of a clinical trial like this, I received the best of the best of everything. Every person we dealt with walked us methodically through each step and treated us like royalty. Even though the particular study that I was involved in has now been concluded, developments and technology are moving really fast, and there are always new studies, new trials, new cutting-edge procedures, and new hope for patients when traditional medicine says there is no hope! Because of the protocol of my particular study, there was a 33-1/3 percent chance that I would receive the placebo and not the actual stem cell therapy. My motivation at the time, however, was that even though I personally might not experience any benefit from my participation, perhaps my children, grandchildren, and so many, many others I don’t even know, would. That was enough to make participation worth it. After all, it’s all in God’s hands anyway, isn’t it?”