The goal of cardiac stem cell therapy is to learn whether these cells, known as the body’s ‘master cells’ can be used to repair the heart.

Barry Brown checked into the hospital that morning, knowing he needed some kind of a heart procedure, but confident that nothing major was amiss. He was in the best shape of his life, a newly retired Air Force military fitness trainer, who several months earlier had just returned home from tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

But, as the time ticked by, and he lay on the table, he was soon to learn the truth. His heart, ravaged by scarring from a previous heart attack, was limping along at only 22 percent of its capacity. The diagnosis was heart failure, caused by severe heart disease. He needed a triple artery coronary bypass surgery and most likely, eventually, a heart transplant.

“I was devastated. I was only 38 years old. I had just retired, and I had two young children.”

But Brown didn’t get a transplant. Instead, in groundbreaking surgery performed by UHealth-University of Miami Health system physicians, he received several injections of his own stem cells into his damaged heart. Now, five years later, Brown runs his own fitness company, trains for marathons, and serves as the muscular poster boy for the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s stem cell program. In fact, “We All Have Stem Cells. But Only My UHealth Doctors used mine to heal my heart.”

Currently, six million people in the U.S. have heart failure, which kills an estimated 53,000 million people each year.

The life-changing opportunity for Brown came when, instead of just undergoing the bypass, he was offered the opportunity to be part of the Prometheus Study, which is a multicenter research trial being done by Dr. Joshua Hare, director of UHealth’s Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute (ISCI).

“I looked into stem cells a little, and then I said, ‘yeah sure,’ and they said, ‘great.’ I felt at the time that stem cell therapy was going to be the penicillin of our generation,” said Brown.

The goal of cardiac stem cell therapy is to learn whether these cells, known as the body’s ‘master cells’ can be used to repair the heart. Brown’s study was double-blind and placebo-controlled, meaning that participants would receive either stem cells or a placebo and neither doctors nor patients would know which they received until the study was unveiled. Brown didn’t learn until the summer of 2012 that he received the stem cell treatment. “I wasn’t surprised. I did so well that I always had suspected I had,” he recalled.

Stem cells are immature “master cells” within the body that have the capacity to transform themselves into different types of cells within the human body. Dr. Hare’s study utilized mesenchymal stem cells, taken from Brown’s own body. No embryonic stem cells are used, side-stepping the issue that has made this type of therapy controversial.

But recovery wasn’t easy for the burly former fitness trainer. He found himself sapped, not only physically but emotionally as well, and credits the care he received from UHealth, particularly Darcy DiFede, R.N., B.S.N., the clinical trial coordinator, for helping to keep his spirits up.

“Even though I was a certified professional trainer, and I’d trained Airmen to be squadron fitness leaders, it wasn’t easy for me. Since I was starting back at square one, I found it easy to become discouraged,” said Brown. “I was fighting myself mentally, telling myself, ‘You had a heart attack, you had triple bypass surgery, you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ and feeling sorry for myself. But I came to realize that 90 percent of coming back was mental, and I had to talk myself into a good game as well,” he added.

But Brown was so determined that he now runs his own fitness company, “Athlete in Motion,” which provides training to adults and inner city kids at affordable prices. He also is putting together a DVD program entitled “Get Fit with 50,” which is based on his program of body-weight exercises, and will provide 50 days of 50-minute workouts.

And recently he joined forces with Sabrina Cohen, the nationally known founder and president of the Sabrina Cohen Foundation. The two had bonded over their shared passion for stem cell research. Now that Cohen has broadened her non-profit organization’s mission to focus on helping people with spinal cord injuries get fit, a match with Brown seems natural.

On a personal note, Brown and his wife Oria will celebrate their first wedding anniversary in December, and she is helping him pick out a new fitness goal to celebrate these milestones. On the third anniversary of his surgery, Brown completed a half marathon.” Now, he’s looking for a way to commemorate year five, and, although he hasn’t yet decided exactly what he will do, there is no doubt that Barry Brown will chose an amazing feat to commemorate his new heart.

By Charlotte Libov