Novel Stem Cell Therapy Changes Life for Federal Agent Saved by UHealth Cardiologists

Surrounded by reporters and TV cameras, and wearing exercise clothing, UHealth patient Noel Zuniga ran hard for several minutes on a treadmill at University of Miami Hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Center. When he was finished, he climbed off the treadmill, dropped to the floor and proceeded, very quickly, to do 30 pushups. Then he was back on the treadmill for more running. Zuniga was barely breaking a sweat, and he looked strong and unstoppable — perhaps the best image for a real-life NCIS agent.

But two years ago, Zuniga was almost stopped dead by a severe heart attack in Panama, where he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy. His workout during a press briefing on October 2 was a way of demonstrating how UHealth doctors had not only saved his life immediately after the heart attack, but also changed his life for the better in the past year through a novel stem cell procedure that has healed much of the damage to his heart.

When Zuniga first had the heart attack, doctors at Hospital Nacional were able to open his blockage with an angioplasty and stent, but he remained critically ill and was experiencing multiple organ failures. The U.S. Embassy in Panama reached out to UHealth, whose researchers four years earlier had led trials of the Impella 2.5 pump, a minimally invasive catheter-based cardiac assist device that provides blood circulation when the patient’s heart is too weak to do so on its own.

Within six hours, a UHealth team led by cardiologist Carlos Alfonso, M.D., and cardiovascular perfusionist Pedro Tages was in Panama at Zuniga’s bedside.

“Noel’s case really exemplifies the benefits of having access to cutting-edge technology,” said Alfonso. “The device that saved his life was not even available in Panama at the time.”

Once the device was implanted, Zuniga was airlifted to Miami for further treatment. He remained at UM for more than a month, first in the ICU and later in intensive cardiac rehabilitation, under the care of UHealth cardiologist Robert C. Hendel, M.D.

“Noel is a fighter, but we had to work with him very carefully because he was so fragile,” recalled Hendel of Zuniga’s original arrival in Miami. “We rescued him from the jaws of death, but even afterward, the situation looked pretty grim. He had sustained so much damage that we were very concerned about his future.”

Zuniga and his wife, Diana, began researching how they could live a healthier lifestyle. In the course of their reading, they learned about the research with stem cells being conducted by the University of Miami’s Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute (ISCI). Hoping to repair the damage to his heart, Zuniga enrolled in the TRIDENT stem cell clinical trial being conducted by Joshua M. Hare, M.D., Director of ISCI and an internationally renowned leader in clinical stem cell research. The trial is trying to determine the optimal dosing of donor stem cells in repairing heart muscle damage from heart attacks.

“Following a heart attack, patients are typically left with a big scar in the front wall of the heart,” said Hare. “The heart’s normal football shape begins to distort, becoming more like a basketball, which inhibits proper function and leads to congestive heart failure.”

The TRIDENT study follows the acclaimed POSEIDON study, which showed the safety and efficacy of donor stem cells in patients with heart damage due to heart attack. Zuniga had stem cells injected directly into the damaged area of his heart in June 2014.

“Right away, I noticed a change,” he said. “I began feeling better very quickly.”

“Noel’s scar tissue has been reduced by 35 percent,” said Hare. “That’s an exceptional result.”

One year after starting the trial, Zuniga’s doctors declared him markedly improved, allowing him once again to lead a full and normal life. His return to Miami for the press conference was an emotional reunion. Drs. Alfonso, Hendel and Hare were all present, as was Darcy DiFede, B.S.N., ISCI’s Director of Research, and there were hugs all around.

“How do I feel today? Like nothing ever happened,” said the burly 44-year-old father of three. “I went back to the gym in February, and I’ve pushed hard because my body tells me I can. To me, the future looks really bright.”

“It’s great,” said Hendel, with a smile, “when our stories have a happy ending.”

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