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Supplying oxygen to the heart

April 2002

Ken Brumley, a retired 65-year-old from Victoria, Texas, felt like he had a boa constrictor around his chest. A few years ago, he suffered from severe angina (chest pains). His only relief came in the form of a tablet; Brumley says he was popping more than 100 nitroglycerin pills a month to ease the pain. His arteries were clogged and his heart choked from the lack of oxygen. "I was willing to try anything to keep living," Brumley said.

"I was willing to do anything to survive, aside from getting an artificial heart." Three years ago, physicians implanted five stents – tiny wire mesh tubes that prop open arteries – and performed a coronary bypass graft. He is now living a fairly normal life.

Brumley received some of his specialized care from cardiologist Steven R. Bailey, M.D., professor of medicine at the Health Science Center.

Today, Health Science Center investigators are studying a new process that might help patients such as Brumley. The process is called "angiogenesis," and the goal is the development of healthy blood vessels to feed the heart. Dr. Bailey and his team are seeding a micro-scaffold with cells from the endothelium, the thin layer of cells that lines areas of the heart and stomach. "Endothelial cells are unique because they are highly migratory and release vascular endothelial growth factor. They start to form the beginnings of new blood vessels," Dr. Bailey said.

The research so far has been conducted in mice. Once the scaffold is placed in the damaged areas of the mouse heart, the cells begin to multiply. "As they reproduce, they grow out from their current location. As they spread out, they actually form new blood vessels," Dr. Bailey said. "These new vessels are both small and large, and we’re excited about that because we think it means we can do the same thing in a large animal model."

Dr. Bailey and his team are continuing the scaffold work in pigs. If results are promising, people who are not candidates for heart bypass surgery or stents could benefit from the dissolving scaffolds in a few years. "We’re talking about patients who have no options, perhaps seven million in the United States alone," Dr. Bailey said.

For the Ken Brumleys of the world, this is encouraging news. "After all, I don’t want to be sick," he said. "I want to be fishing."

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Updated 12/11/14