- At first, Owen Palmer thought his heart attack was a case of indigestion
- A few days later he was rushed to the hospital for emergency heart surgery
- He thought his life was over, but the new treatment changed everything
A pioneering treatment could help patients after a heart attack or heart failure.
Owen Palmer, 54, a father of four and a software manager from Abbey Wood, South-East London, was one of the first to have it, as he tells ROGER DOBSON.
At first, I thought my heart attack was indigestion. It was in the summer of 2010 and I was at a festival in Bexley with friends from my fencing club — I’ve been a keen fencer since I was 13.
I suddenly became aware of an uncomfortable feeling, like indigestion, at the top of my stomach.
At first, Owen Palmer (pictured) thought his heart attack was indigestion. He was near death for days but did not know about it
I was not at first overly concerned but, after about 20 minutes, I went to see the paramedics.
They gave me an ECG and told me everything was fine and that it must be indigestion.
But the feeling didn’t go away and I spent a couple of days in bed hoping it would get better. But then my wife Tracey and my daughters insisted I go to A&E.
I was near death, but didn’t know it —within 30 minutes of arriving at the hospital I’d had scans and was in the operating theatre undergoing emergency surgery to unblock my blood vessels.
The surgery was successful, but it turned out that large areas of the heart muscle had died and my heart was only pumping out 21 per cent of oxygenated blood compared with the 70 per cent of a healthy heart.
I couldn’t understand why I’d had a heart attack. I was relatively young at 47, with no family history, very fit and generally in good health.
I don’t go to the GP often. The last time I went, a year or so before this heart attack, I asked for the doctor I’d seen previously, and was told he had died 17 years earlier!
The doctors said I had just been unlucky. I asked them if I was going to get better, and they said ‘no’ because too much of the heart muscle had been destroyed and it does not rejuvenate.
The future didn’t look good, and it was very upsetting — tears come to my eyes even now as I think about it.
At that point, I thought my life was pretty much over.
Overnight I had gone from someone who was very fit to someone who could barely walk — I could only take a few steps at the speed of a tortoise and was exhausted after just a few yards and had to sit down to get my breath back.
Soon after leaving the hospital, Owen got a dog on Poppy Day, which was naturally called Poppy. He kept a diary of how far they would walk and it shows how it increased over time
I gave up work, but my employer supported me throughout by giving me a token income initially.
Then about a year after the heart attack I saw a TV documentary where they injected stem cells into pigs and talked about it being the future in medicine.
So I asked my cardiologist about whether there was any hope for that and she said that in fact she knew about a trial in London using stem cells and put me in touch with them. It was great because something was actually happening.
About three months later in November 2011, I went to meet Professor Anthony Mathur, who was leading the trial.
I was accepted on to it based on my medical records — it was a trial so I didn’t know whether I would get the placebo or the stem cells: I just hoped it was the real deal.
I was in hospital for about five days for the stem-cell treatment. First I was given an injection of a drug which increases the number of stem cells in your bone marrow where they are produced.
Owen I was in hospital for about five days for the stem-cell treatment
Then I had a special needle inserted into the bottom of my back — I had a local anaesthetic, and while it was somewhat uncomfortable, it was not painful — and they extracted an egg-cup full of stem cells from my bone marrow.
These were taken away to the lab for processing and I had another local anaesthetic and a tube containing the stem cells put through a small incision in a blood vessel in my groin.
It was then navigated through the blood vessels to my heart and the cells were unloaded into the damaged heart muscle. This part took about 15 minutes.
I was determined to make the most of it and soon after I came out of hospital, we got a dog on Poppy Day, which we naturally called Poppy.
It was a way of making sure I had a walk every day.
I kept a diary of how far we would walk and it shows how it increased over time — up to two miles or more now.
After six months, the improvements were noticeable, and I was told I was not on placebo in 2014.
Since the procedure, I’ve been slowly getting back into work. I am also fencing whenever I can — taking on Commonwealth gold winners — and swimming and playing golf.
The improvement has been incredible — I reckon I am back to 90 per cent of the fitness levels I had before the heart attack, and things are still getting better every day.
Professor Anthony Mathur is a consultant cardiologist at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London.
More than one million people in the UK are living with the aftermath of a heart attack where the heart muscle is starved of oxygen-rich blood, usually as result of a clot. A heart attack always causes some permanent damage to the muscle.
More than one million people in the UK are living with the aftermath of a heart attack where the heart muscle is starved of oxygen-rich blood, usually as result of a clot
There is growing evidence to suggest that stem cells — the body’s ‘master’ cells, which can turn into almost any other type of cell — may help repair the damage caused by a heart attack or heart failure (where the heart isn’t able to pump blood efficiently as a result of high blood pressure or a heart attack).
Stem-cell therapy is a significant step forward in the treatment of heart disease and is a potential game-changer.
The Heart Cells Foundation has funded us to carry out the trials and we have shown it can save lives.
Now the charity is funding a compassionate treatment programme [at St Bartholomew’s], for the first time in Europe, treating patients using their own cells to repair their hearts.
The idea behind stem-cell therapy is to take cells from the patient’s bone marrow, process them in the lab (to purify them) and then inject them into the damaged areas of heart muscle.
The patients first have medication which increases the number of stem cells in their bone marrow. Up to 100ml of cells are taken with a syringe from the bone marrow in a 45-minute procedure.
The idea behind stem-cell therapy is to take cells from the patient’s bone marrow, process them in the lab (to purify them) and then inject them into the damaged areas of heart muscle
This sample, which is taken from the hip bone, is processed to collect white blood cells, from which the stem cells are extracted.
In the second part, stem cells are injected back into the patient. We treat two groups of patients with this procedure, those with heart failure and those, like Owen, who have had a heart attack, and the approach is slightly different.
In both cases, we use a catheter, or thin tube, which is inserted through a tiny incision made in an artery in the groin, to transport the stem cells to where we want them.
As well as temporary bruising, longer-term side-effects may include faulty heart rhythms if the injected cells can’t communicate with the heart’s electrical system.
Longer-term side-effects may include faulty heart rhythms if the injected cells can’t communicate with the heart
‘Most of the stem cell therapies for the heart have been surprisingly safe, but long-term effects are still a concern,’ says Richard Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The evidence of the benefits of current stem-cell therapies based on bone marrow derived cells is ‘limited’ — ‘and it is important that false hope is not raised among patients,’ adds Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, medical director at the British Heart Foundation.
‘Research in regenerative medicine is promising and advancing quickly but we need more research into its efficacy and safety before it is a viable treatment.’
In heart failure, we deliver the stem cells to the coronary arteries supplying the heart.
In heart attack patients, we inject the stem cells directly into the damaged heart muscle itself.
Patients will usually stay in hospital for up to a week. No other medications are added other than the treatment the patient is already established on.
Results from our research suggest patients start to notice improvements in around six months (those given the placebo on the trials have since been offered the treatment).
The exact mechanism and what the stem cells do once inside the heart is still unclear: we know the heart gets stronger but whether that means there is new tissue, we cannot be sure.
It may be that the stem cells repair the partially damaged tissue rather than regenerate new tissue.
But whatever the process, we have had very positive results from around 300 patients.
We believe stem cell therapy may reduce the number of people dying from heart attacks by as much as 25 per cent — it could open up a whole new branch of medicine.
The procedure costs £10,000 and is currently available only at St Bartholomew’s funded by the Heart Cells Foundation.