BY DENISE MAYCOCK
Tribune Freeport Reporter
FREEPORT - Dr Howard Walpole, chief medical officer at Okyanos Heart Institute, says the new stem cell therapy clinic in Freeport will be ready in early summer to administer treatment to “no option” patients suffering from severe symptoms of coronary heart disease.
“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,” he said in an interview with journalists at the STEMSO 2014 Conference in Freeport.
Dr Walpole, a leading cardiac expert, was one of several speakers at the conference on Thursday. He spoke on ‘Stem Cell Delivery in Cardiac Disease.’
He said heart disease is the number one killer 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 with heart failure; right billion with peripheral vascular disease; and 5.7 million patients with strokes.
Dr Walpole said those numbers were probably even higher today.
He said research was currently going on 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.
He said they are currently using the patient’s own adult stem cells to treat heart disease.
Dr Walpole said the clinic 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,” he said.
He said 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’ budgets.”
Dr Walpole said 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.”
He believes that the Bahamas’ proximity to the US is an obvious choice for Americans, and people from other countries as well.
Construction of the lab for the clinic in Freeport must be built accurately to accommodate the equipment that will be installed, Dr Walpole said.
“A cardiac catheterisation 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 said.
He said the clinic will be equipped with a generator for backup electrical supply.
“We are looking at maybe June or so,” he said.
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.
He said candidates for the procedure would be mostly middle-aged patients who have had at least one heart attack, 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 ten to 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.
“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,” he said.