01/26/2012 04:37 EST | Updated 03/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Heart patient's stem cells harnessed for healing

Some heart bypass patients are receiving cardiac stem cell transplants to try to repair damage.

This week, a 67-year-old James Culross from Toronto will be discharged from Toronto General Hospital after having 2.83 million stem cells injected into seven sites where his heart had been damaged by a heart attack in November 2011.

When someone suffers a heart attack, part of the heart muscle dies and is replaced by a scar. In larger heart attacks, the patient can develop heart failure — a weakening of the heart that leaves the patient short of breath, said cardiac surgeon Dr. Terrence Yau of Toronto's University Health Network.

Yau and his colleagues at Toronto General's Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital in Montreal are involved in a clinical trial testing the safety, effectiveness and feasibility of injecting stem cells into the hearts of people having bypass surgery.

"This kind of therapy can improve the function and blood flow of hearts that have been injured by heart attacks most commonly and potentially by other means as well," said Yau.

In Culross's case, the stem cells were taken from the bone marrow in the hip and lower back in the operating suite. After four to six hours, the stem cells were isolated, the bypass grafts done and the stem cells injected back into the damaged areas of his heart.

"I thought it was great," Culross said of the procedure. "It's your stem cells, nobody else's."

Culross is now working on improving his strength and walking more in the hopes of returning to his auto body repair job.

Since 2010, eight patients have also had the experimental procedure in Montreal.

The Montreal and Toronto teams plan to combine their findings once each has results on 20 patients.

No one knows yet whether the stem cell treatment will improve survival or quality of life by healing the heart.

Investigators worldwide are testing whether giving the stem cells sooner after a heart attack makes a difference and experimenting with different procedures.