Alumni Spotlight: Introducing a New Therapy to Heal Failing Hearts

Dr. Amit Patel, ’93 BS in Biology, ’94 MS in Immunophysiology

YSU alumnus Dr. Amit Patel is making medical history at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

A cardiothoracic surgeon and associate professor, Patel has developed a promising new heart procedure that has lifesaving potential for many of the 5.1 million patients nationwide diagnosed with heart failure.

In the procedure, called retrograde gene therapy, the surgeon threads a needle through a major leg vein to reach the heart. That channel is used to deliver a gene, SDF-1, which acts as a homing device to attract stem cells that naturally exist in the patient’s heart, blood and bone marrow.

“When a person suffers a heart attack, SDF-1 is produced and stem cells travel to the heart, but for only a short time,” Patel explains. “In retrograde gene therapy, we marinate the heart with the gene, so it sticks around for 30 days. That gives the stem cells 30 days to start working so the heart can repair itself.”

He calls the procedure “ultra-minimally invasive,” because it is performed on an outpatient basis while the patient is awake.

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Patel was the first in the world to perform retrograde gene therapy last November. The patient was Ernie Lively, a well-known television and film actor diagnosed with heart failure. The actor, whose film credits include “Passenger 57” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” has seen promising results.

Now, Patel is the principal investigator in a clinical trial for retrograde gene therapy that includes 10 other physicians and will eventually include 72 patients from across the country. “We’ll be watching them to see: Are they walking further? Are they feeling stronger? Are their hearts functioning better?” said Patel.

Doctors are optimistic. Stem cell therapy has been used successfully to treat heart patients for more than a decade, Patel said, but previous techniques were much more invasive, requiring open-heart surgery or catheters. “This is exciting because it is ultra-minimally invasive, a much safer and more cost-effective way to deliver the therapy to the heart, and we are the first in the world to do it.”

Patel was born and raised in Dallas and knew from an early age that he wanted to be a heart surgeon. He came to YSU as an undergraduate, planning to take advantage of its six-year BSMD partnership with the Northeast Ohio Medical University. However, Patel finished his bachelor’s degree in just 18 months and decided to stay at YSU to earn a master’s degree in immunophysiology. “I met a lot of incredible people at YSU,” he said, “great people who work hard and strive for excellence.”

Patel earned his medical degree at Case Western Reserve University, completed an internship and residency at Baylor University Medical Center and a cardiothoracic surgery fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh. Now, he is an associate professor in the division of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Utah School of Medicine and director of Clinical Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering at the University of Utah.

He and his colleagues at U of U are also involved in 17 other clinical trials, many involving gene therapy, stem cells and non-surgical procedures. “I have a very unusual job description. I am a cardio vascular interventionalist,” he said. “I feel very fortunate that I can do both open heart surgery and catheter-based intervention to help a wide range of patients.”

Patel and his wife, Megna, have two sons, ages 5 and 7, and live in Salt Lake City. His favorite activity after hours is “hanging out” with his family. They especially enjoy traveling and pursuing winter sports such as skiing and ice-skating.

(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Winter 2014)