Roger Smith of Lebanon works out regularly, but about six years ago this avid golfer was faced with a harsh reality.
"Well you learned in one afternoon that you had a disease that you barely heard of before and not only did you have the disease, but it was already progressing to the point where your leg was threatened," Smith said.
He was diagnosed with peripheral artery disease, a condition that in the most serious cases causes close to 60,000 leg amputations every year. But a study at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is aimed at changing that.
"It was very clear that that was my only chance. The other way it was for sure that the leg was going to be gone," Smith said.
"It is the same sort of phenomenon that occurs in people's hearts that can cause then to have a heart attack; arteriosclerosis, where plaque builds up in your arteries. And this is usually found in patients who have high cholesterol levels, who are diabetic, overweight, smoking, and then there is the genetic part of it. It can run in families," said Dr. Richard Powell of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Smith was a serious case. He lost two toes. Fearing he might lose his leg as well, he agreed to take part in a stem cell trial.
"The primary study was actually taking bone marrow and then send it to the sponsoring company who would then grow the important cells thought to be involved in being able to get the patient to heal the wound, and then they would send these cells back after two weeks to the investigator who would them inject them into the patients' ischemic leg," Powell said.
Along with about half of the participants in the study who received the stem cells, Smith saw results almost immediately. The wound on his foot which barely showed any improvement prior to the study rapidly began to heal.
"Before it was over, it was quite obvious that something remarkable was going on," Smith said. "There was a healing process that the doctors themselves had never seen before."
At this time, researchers do not know exactly how the healing takes place, whether the stem cells are fixing the broken blood vessels or helping to grow new ones, but for Smith, 79, how does not really matter.
"I'm very, very proud to have played a small part in this," he said.
And now, thanks to science, he can continue to play the golf course.
The phase three trial has just begun. Doctors say in about three years the treatment could be available for mass use.
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