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What's the future of heart disease treatment?

As part of the “Heart Smarts” series, “Today” investigates the latest medical procedures helping those affected, including the use of stem cells.
/ Source: TODAY

Continuing our week-long series on “Heart Smarts,” “Today” profiles the latest in treatments. Although it's the number one killer in the U.S., there are ways of treating heart disease, and recent advances in science have enabled more patients to live longer and more productive lives.

A year and a half ago Anthony Salas suffered from debilitating heart disease, and time was running out.

Salas: I was flat on my back. I couldn't sit up, I would get pains after a meal.

Anthony enrolled in a small phase-1 study at Scripps Clinic in California where stem cells — the cells from which others can develop — were extracted from his own blood and injected into the heart muscle.

Dr. Richard Schatz, interventional cardiologist, Scripps Clinic: What we hope to happen is that when they receive the stem cells, the stem cell will teach the heart how to grow new blood vessels, restore flow and hopefully eliminate or reduce the amount of chest pain.

The innovative treatment will require years of additional research, but medical experts say early results are promising.

Schatz: It showed that for the first time it is safe to harvest stem cells from the patient, collect them, refine them and inject them right back into the heart muscle. In some cases there were patients who had complete relief of symptoms, where previously nothing worked at all. Salas: I can get around a lot easier. I'm without my oxygen, I'm without my wheelchair.

22-year-old Duc Vu can also move about freely despite suffering heart failure in September, which is believed to have been caused by a virus.

Vu: I developed fever at night and I couldn't get out of bed.Dr. Todd Dewey, cardiac surgeon, Medical City: Duc went from being a fully functioning person to being almost dead within a space of four or five days.

In the past, Duc's only hope might have been to undergo a heart transplant but today doctors are able to surgically implant a “ventricular assist device.” Attached to a battery pack, it pumps his blood while allowing his heart to rest.

Dewey: I think it's a good possibility he can avoid a heart transplant and just recover his own heart. These patients who come in critically ill with very rapid form of heart failure don't have to die. Vu: I'm not scared anymore, I just take it as it come.

A more common form of heart disease is caused by blocked arteries. In the U.S. more than a million people a year are treated with angioplasty — generally, a tiny balloon is threaded through a catheter near the groin and maneuvered up to the heart where a balloon is inflated to unclog blood vessels.

Stents — or tiny tubes often “coated” with medication — are also used to help prevent the blockage from closing again.

Dr. Samin Sharma, interventional cardiologist, Mount Sinai Hospital: The medicated stents, because they're very effective in hospitals, they decrease the complications of angioplasty and by reducing, if not eliminating, chances of re-blockage.

Not all patients are candidates for angioplasty or drug alluding stents. This year, an estimated 500,000 people in the U.S. will undergo heart bypass surgery — where arteries or veins from other parts on the body are used to bypass narrowed arteries.

Doctors at Medical City Hospital in Dallas are experimenting with what they describe as an emerging technology called the “spy imaging system” — allowing doctors to see whether the actual bypasses they perform are successful.

Dr. Michael Mack, cardiac surgeon, Medical City: For the last 20 years we've always just assumed that our bypass grafts were fine, and in no place else that an artery is bypassed do we just assume it's fine. This is a much simpler way of getting pictures of the bypasses we've just done and being able to demonstrate that indeed the arteries are open.

Technology moving forward — saving lives and offering hope to millions in their own private battles against heart disease.