Gene therapy being studied to regenerate heart tissue in heart failure patients

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BLUE SPRINGS, Mo -- We often hear about broken hearts, but not so much about failing hearts. Five million Americans have heart failure. A Blue Springs woman is among those who've tested a way to possibly regenerate heart tissue.

Melinda Johnson used to lack the energy to climb more than seven steps without stopping and sitting. It was just one limitation brought on by heart failure. Her heart was severely weakened by a heart attack nine years ago.

"At first, I could not even hold my arms up long enough to even blow dry my own hair and curl it," recalled Johnson.

In 2014, her cardiologist at Saint Luke's Hospital asked if she'd want to take part in a study of gene therapy for heart failure.

"To try and deliver to the heart the tools to grow a new protein to help it grow new muscle," said Dr. Bethany Austin.

Johnson had a procedure similar to angioplasty. A catheter was threaded from the groin up into a large vein in the heart. A balloon was on the tip.

"And the solution was then infused through that," said Dr. Austin.

In some patients, the solution contained a gene aimed at helping the body's own cells make the protein. To this day, Johnson and Dr. Austin don't know if she received the gene therapy, but Johnson says within a few weeks, she had more energy.

"I was able to enjoy my vacation without having to take a day or two off just to sleep and rest which was a miracle to me," she said.

She says she still has more energy than before, so she suspects she got the gene therapy.

"Either that or I have really good mind over matter," she said.

The trial had fewer than 100 patients and was just focused on safety.

"All we can say is people did well with it as far as safety and there was no sign that people did worse," said Dr. Austin.

The FDA has fast-tracked a larger study of safety. That could lead to a study to see if the therapy really is effective in regenerating heart tissue.

"I mean, it has definite possibilities," said Johnson.

She is evidence of that.

Saint Luke's is currently doing a study of the same gene therapy for peripheral artery disease.

Johnson says she'd had symptoms long before her heart attack, but her doctor at the time dismissed them. She encourages women to be persistent.