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Retired Perth Amboy principal
Reborn' after stem-cell transplant


PERTH AMBOY — Michael George feels so good he can pinch himself.

And today, after undergoing an autologous adult stem-cell transplant 14 months ago to stop his advanced case of scleroderma, an incurable autoimmune disease that causes excess collagen to make skin tighten and feel hard and thick, George is able to pinch his pliable skin. He's also able to open his mouth real wide.

“I feel really good,” said George, a retired William C. McGinnis School principal, who in April was taken off all medications, including antibiotics, related to his transplant.

“I feel I was reborn,” George said. “It's great to be alive.”

It was at his one-year check-up in April doctors told George, an avid fisherman, that he can now do anything he wants.

He recently returned from a five-day trip to Martha's Vineyard, where he went fishing with friends. And soon George will travel to Spain with his wife, Alice, brother and sister and their families during which he will celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary.

“We're looking forward to it,” he said.

And he's spending lots of time this summer on his 22-foot fishing boat, which he affectionately refers to as “my baby” and along the city's marina.

“This is my passion,” said George while sitting along the marina. “This is my kind of weather.”

Just before the March 13, 2008, adult stem-cell transplant, George's skin was stiff and his face was tight. He had a hard time swallowing. Doctors were concerned his condition was spreading internally to the point it might close his esophagus and damage his heart and lungs.

The procedure George underwent at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago involved taking stem cells from his bone marrow, cleaning and freezing them while he received large doses of chemotherapy to cleanse his immune system before the stem cells were put back into his body to grow.

He said a stainless steel vat with a long cylinder contained the stem cells that were put into a syringe and his body.

He was asked to identify any distinct smells.

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“It smelled like cream corn. It filled the whole hall,” George said. “They couldn't explain it. It was so strange.”
George said when he returned to the hospital for visits he knew if he smelled cream corn that someone had undergone a stem-cell transplant.

“I eat a lot of corn now,” he joked.

George stayed in the hospital for nearly three weeks and remained in Chicago for about three months staying in a hotel affiliated with the hospital which offered apartment-like accommodations for transplant patients.

The night he returned to Perth Amboy, George remembers being able to bend down to pick up the luggage from the trunk of the cab. These days his knees are giving him some trouble when he bends due to arthritis.

George said the procedure didn't cure him, but it stopped the disease and reverses it to a certain extent.

“In April the doctor said "are you sure I didn't give you a lung transplant, instead of a stem cell transplant,” he said, noting both his lungs and heart are now in good condition.

Following the transplant, George said his body has a low tolerance for cold weather and he has to really bundle up. He may spend part of the upcoming winter visiting a friend in California and his son, who lives on the island of St. Vincent.

George said he really appreciates life and everyone at his church, the school district and city who wrote or e-mailed him and contributed toward his medical expenses, which were more than $200,000.

He now wants to pay it forward by helping others facing adult stem-cell transplants.

“I'm like an advocate,” said George, who sees his role as offering a helping hand, just as others who had been through the procedure had helped him. “We advocate among each other.

It helps them, and it helps me too. All my life I wanted to help people. Helping kids was my forte. Now to help someone in need who doesn't know what to expect, it raises it to a whole different level.”

 Stem cells help Booker T. Washington coach Barry Brown strengthen his heart


Lying on a hospital bed, Barry Brown thought everything was coming at him too fast.

It was July 2008, months before Brown would be selected for Project Prometheus, a groundbreaking University of Miami research study during which his damaged heart would be repaired using stem cells from his own bone marrow.

But at that moment, the chest tightness and fatigue that had plagued the newly retired Air Force physical trainer was a mystery. Then came the deep congestion that made his chest feel hollow and numb, keeping him from finishing routine workouts.

After a battery of endocardiograms and stress tests, the news came from doctors at the Miami Veterans Administration Hospital that Brown -- now an ROTC instructor and assistant football and baseball coach at Booker T. Washington High School -- was living with clogged arteries, three blockages that had weakened his heart to 40 percent capacity.

Then the bombshell: ''Are you aware that you've had a heart attack?'' Brown's doctor said.

Brown was 38.

'I was thinking, `Why me? I've lived a good life. I don't deserve this,' '' Brown said. ``There was some self-pity there.''

He soon found that his affliction offered a unique opportunity.


It was in the VA hospital that Brown first met Dr. Juan Pablo Zambrano, an assistant professor of medicine at UM's Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine. Brown listened as Zambrano detailed the specifics of an experimental bone marrow stem cell procedure, a joint venture between UM and Johns Hopkins University.

The effort was to be led by Zambrano and Dr. Joshua Hare, chief of UM's Cardiovascular Division and director of the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute. The surgery would be performed by Dr. James Symes, chief of cardio-thorasic surgery at UM.

Zambrano's pitch pulled no punches.

No, Brown might not pass the requisite tests to be in the study group. If he did, he still would have to wait four weeks for bypass surgery after the extraction. The time would allow stem cells to grow enough material in cultures so it could be injected into the weakened and scarred areas of Brown's heart.

And there still was a chance that Brown would not be given the treatment at all. One-third of the study group -- the control group -- is given a placebo injection instead of actual stem cells.

There are no guarantees, Zambrano explained. That's what makes it experimental.

Brown accepted.


The phone call was tense, but it had to be made.

''Mom, I need to know if you remember anyone in your family having a history of heart disease,'' Brown said into the receiver. ``I had a heart attack.''

And with those words, an icy 10-year silence began to melt.

It had been that long since Brown had spoken to his mother. Raised by his father in Massachusetts, Brown had always been distant with her, and they grew further apart after he joined the Air Force.

''But I really wanted to clear the air,'' Brown said. ``I thought that if God feels it's my time to go, I shouldn't leave any grudges behind.''

In the wake of his ordeal, Brown has continued to mend fences. After his retirement, he relocated from Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas to South Florida to be closer to his children. His son and a daughter live in Fort Myers with their mother.

''It kind of hurt our plans for the summer,'' Brown said. ``I had to explain to [the kids] that there would be times I wouldn't feel good, that I wouldn't always have a lot of energy or want to go out. I had to tell them that I might die.''

Today, Brown can laugh as he recounts those summer drives to Fort Myers and back, when his worried 12-year-old daughter would incessantly send text messages saying ''r u ok?'' and ``how r u feeling?''

He can laugh because, by all early accounts, Prometheus has done its job.


''This is a complete departure from the way we've always treated heart attacks,'' Hare said. ``And, I have to say, it is breathtaking.''

Zambrano added: ``The implications are enormous.''

Hare was recruited to UM from Johns Hopkins for two reasons: to be the chief of the cardiology department and to start the stem cell research division.

In November, Brown underwent triple-bypass surgery. Four weeks earlier, Symes had removed a sampling of bone marrow from his hip bone and isolated the desired cells into a culture that would be grown into enough material to be injected into the heart.

''Once we've completed the bypass grafts, we inject the stem cells into the heart's weaker areas,'' Symes said. ``It's actually quite simple.''

What follows is an 18-month period of monitoring for each patient, highlighted by intensive monthly testing and after-care.

Things have slowed down for Brown since those hectic first weeks at the VA, but things are speeding up in a different way now. Each week, he has been able to add a quarter-mile to his daily workout walk.

By spring he was up to three miles a day. Now, at 39, he is training to compete in a mini-triathlon.

''And I'm feeling no discomfort,'' he said.


Although the initial case studies have been successful, the three doctors know they are facing an uphill battle. They have secured only 11 of the targeted 45 willing participants. Many who have heart damage are unwilling to wait a month for their stem cells to incubate without a guarantee that they will be in the treatment group.

''We are working with the FDA to try to guarantee that those who are in the placebo group do eventually get administered the treatment,'' Hare said.

He hopes this will entice more people to participate.

Hare estimates that, including the time needed for government approval, it could be at least five years until the treatment could be ready for general practice.

Recent budget cuts at the National Institute of Health, scheduled to take effect in two years, complicate matters, Hare said. These cuts could affect the research behind such work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has lessened the impact of these cuts by providing grants for such work, and although the researchers at UM have applied for consideration of these funds, they will not know if they will get them until September.

But if the project can succeed, Hare predicts that it could be the biggest salvo in the battle against America's No. 1 killer.


''We are very committed to this project,'' Hare said. ``We are going to finish it.''

Said Brown: ``With all the negatives that the VA system and healthcare has taken recently, I think they were really looking for something positive. This is something that can be very positive.''