News

6.13.2011

Dr. O’Neill Talks From the Heart at Collegetown Lecture

Due to normal wear and tear, one in three Americans over the age of 80 develop aortic stenosis, an obstruction of the aortic valve that is expected to grow in prevalence now that heart disease patients are living longer. But as William O’Neill, M.D., executive dean for clinical affairs at the Miller School and chief medical officer at UHealth-University of Miami Health System, proudly told a rapt audience at the University’s Doctors Lecture Series, the Miller School is the testing site for two different aortic valve replacements implanted via catheter, a minimally invasive procedure designed for elderly patients who otherwise might not be candidates for surgery.

“The Miller School of Medicine is the only medical school in the country that has access to both new heart valves,’’ O’Neill said of the transcatheter aortic valve implantations, or TAVI, that are prolonging the lives of dozens of patients at University of Miami Hospital and Jackson Memorial Hospital. “We are really fortunate to be using these devices.”

He described TAVI patients – many of them World War II veterans – as fearless pioneers who continue to contribute to society. “They are absolute heroes,” he said.

Delivered June 7 at the Robert and Judi Prokop Newman Alumni Center on the Coral Gables campus, O’Neill’s presentation, “Innovations in Cardiology,” was part of UM’s Collegetown initiative to enrich the local community with intellectual discourse and lectures by faculty experts.

Shifting gears, O’Neill also discussed the revolutionary promise stem cell therapies hold for repairing damaged heart muscles, a prospect he said was unfathomable when he was in medical school in the 1970s.

“What we were taught is the heart never had the capacity to regenerate. This is something we believed as dogma throughout the 20th century,” he said.

But, O’Neill noted, that doctrine has disintegrated over the past decade, thanks to the pioneering work of physician-scientists like the Miller School’s Joshua Hare, M.D., director of the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute, and Alan Heldman, M.D., professor of medicine.

Hare, Heldman and their research team are conducting three seminal stem cell clinical trials, including one in which mesenchymal stem cells retrieved from the bone marrow and injected via catheter into a patient’s damaged heart reduced both the heart’s size and scar tissue while improving its function.

“We’re one of the few hospitals in the world that has this procedure available,” O’Neill said, predicting it will “revolutionize the way we’re going to be treating patients.”

Though he made no mention of it, O’Neill already has revolutionized the treatment of heart patients. A world leader in the field of interventional cardiology and in research into new techniques to diagnose and treat blocked arteries, he pioneered the use of angioplasty and stents, performed the first percutaneous valve replacement and led many pivotal studies, authoring some 300 articles along the way.

As Joe Natoli, UM’s senior vice president for business and finance and chief financial officer, said in introducing O’Neill to the audience that included numerous Coral Gables residents, “Today, if you wind up in the emergency room with chest pains, the chances are how you are treated in your early time there, which is critical, will have been informed by research that Bill O’Neill and some of his colleagues have done.”

His legendary work was certainly a draw for several Miller School students, who despite being on break, attended the lecture.

“What they say about him is correct: He’s a leader in this field and when you get a chance to hear from a guy of his caliber, you take it,” said Kartik Telukuntla, who just completed his first year of medical school.

Gables resident Osvaldo Sarraff heartily agreed, saying he welcomed every opportunity to personally learn from such vaunted members of the UM faculty. “It’s rare to have a chance to sit down and hear firsthand about all the amazing things going on in our back yard.”

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