By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
FREEPORT - FREPOR’s first stem cell therapy clinic will be ready by early summer to administer treatment to “no option” patients suffering from severe symptoms of coronary heart disease.
Dr Howard Walpole, chief medical officer at Okyanos Heart Institute, said: “We have bought the majority of the equipment needed, and assembled the majority of staff we require, and we are just waiting on construction to be completed.
“We are looking at maybe June or so.”
Dr Walpole, a leading cardiac expert, was one of several speakers at the STEMSO 2014 Conference in Freeport. He spoke on the topic, ‘Stem Cell Delivery in Cardiac Disease.’
He added that heart disease is the number one killer of people in the world.
A 2007 report from the American Heart Association, he said, revealed that some 37 million patients suffer myocardial ischemia; 865,000 from acute heart attacks per year; five million people from heart failure; eght billion with peripheral vascular disease; and 5.7 million patients with strokes.
Dr Walpole said those numbers should be even higher today.
He noted that research is currently ongoing about taking the framework of a heart and growing a new heart using the patient’s own adult stem cells.
“That is a great goal, and one that is ongoing in research,but certainly not ready to support,” he said.
Dr Walpole added that they are currently using the patient’s own adult stem cells to treat heart disease. He said Okyanos will treat only those patients who cannot be completely treated with standard therapy, such as stint placement or coronary bypass surgery.
“These are patients who have been maximally medically treated, but continue to have symptoms of coronary heart disease and inadequate blood flow. That group is called no option patients; there is no other conventional therapy that can help, so we use stem cell based on research available now to try to minimise or eliminate their symptoms,” Dr Walpole said.
He explained that it has a huge effect on mortality and reduces the cost of healthcare for countries.
“Those patients who survive a heart attack require very expensive treatment for the rest of their lives, and if there is a way we can reduce some of those symptoms and reduce the cost of treatment, we can make a fundamental reduction in healthcare costs for countries’ budget,” Dr Walpole said.
He added that the legislation on stem cell in the Bahamas prohibits the use of embryonic cells, and requires that all work will be done using adult stem cells from the patients.
“I think as we go forward delivering this kind of care, we certainly are going to create a new industry in the Bahamas,” he said. “As we learn more from the data we accumulate from patients, the techniques will improve and cell biology will be understood in greater ways so that the cells will be more effective.”
Dr Walpole believes the Bahamas’ proximity to the US makes it an obvious choice for Americans, and people from other countries as well.
Construction of the laboratory for the clinic in Freeport must be built accurately to accommodate the equipment that will be installed, Dr Walpole said.
“A cardiac catheterization camera, which is a huge expensive equipment, is very sensitive, and the floor and ceiling have to be perfectly level for the camera to work perfectly,” he explained.
Dr Walpole said the procedure is not covered by insurance and would have to be covered by the patient.
The procedure involves the removal of a small amount of fat from the body. The patient is sent to a holding area until the fat is processed through a special machine that separates all the other tissue and the stem cells.
The stem cells are reconstituted in fluid and put in a syringe. The fluid is injected into the heart wall through a catheter, which is placed in the femoral artery.
Once that is done, the catheter is taken out and the patient is placed to the holding area to recover.
Dr Walpole said when the patient has recuperated they can leave the clinic.
“The cost will be high initially, unfortunately, but hopeful over time as we gain numbers with the sort of economies of scale the price will come down,” he said.
Dr Walpole said candidates for the procedure would be mostly middle-aged patients who have had at least one heart attack, and who have been turned down for having a stint or bypass surgery, and there is no other option other than a heart transplant.
“This procedure has been done for 10-15 years in research labs, and so the idea is that it is not going to cure the disease- that is very important to understand,” Dr Walpole said.
“It may not eliminate all of the symptoms depending on the patient, but we are hoping that it will eliminate enough of the symptoms that they are more able to live a normal life and that their quality of life improves.
“There is data to suggest that longevity is better, but there is not enough data to prove it statistically.”