IU's Stem-Cell Research Center Can Rebuild You

Bettering lives, one limb at a time
Top Doctors. Indianapolis Monthly. November 2013.

Through an experimental treatment, cardiologist Keith L. March and vascular surgeon Michael P. Murphy have turned the Indiana Center for Vascular Biology and Medicine here in Indianapolis into a center for regenerative stem-cell research. The duo uses the self-renewing cells to improve blood flow to limbs and treat cardiovascular ailments—and in some cases, even prevent amputation.

Here’s how it works: A syringe is used to draw out a sample of bone marrow from a subject’s pelvic bone. A centrifuge then separates the cells in the marrow, and some of those cells—including stem cells—are injected back into the participant’s limbs-in-question about three dozen times, all in one sitting. Over the course of a year, the subject returns for follow-up visits to look for changes in blood flow.

The grant-funded center is one of seven academic medical centers in the United States (and the only one in Indiana) that works with the National Institutes of Health on stem-cell research. And the treatment costs the participants nothing—the center even covers transportation. March and Murphy are seeing results: The Phase I study had an 84 percent success rate, according to Pat G’Sell, the center’s clinical-research manager. And, while it’s too early to report a rate for the current study, subjects are reporting dramatic changes.

“I was willing to try anything,” says Chip Gagnier of the study. “I would have done handstands if it meant I wouldn’t need to have my legs amputated.”

Case One:
The Sportsman Gets His Legs Back

Avid golfer Chip Gagnier, 60, suffered from aching ulcers on his legs and feet due to scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that attacks the blood vessels. After
an artery graft failed, it looked like leg-removal was the only option. Instead, the Indianapolis resident’s OrthoIndy doctor suggested Gagnier enroll in March and Murphy’s latest study. His right leg received stem cells in October 2010; nine to 10 months later, the limb had healed.

His left leg underwent the procedure in May 2012, and it, too, was cured. Now Gagnier is back on the links. “I was willing to try anything,” he says. “I would have done handstands if it meant I wouldn’t need to have my legs amputated.”  

Case Two:
A Vet’s Pain Abates

David Shelton of Greenwood, 58, lost part of his right leg due to vascular disease
in 1984. A veteran, Shelton works with patients at the Richard L. Roudebush
VA Medical Center. He advises them to avoid amputation—which, he says, can lead to a “sneaky type of depression”—unless it’s absolutely necessary. He also wanted to avoid the same fate for his left leg. After four surgeries to restore blood flow to that limb, Shelton joined March and Murphy’s study in May 2012. About six months later, his pain began to lessen, and the leg continues to improve. The stem cells, along with a new prosthetic for his right leg, allowed Shelton to mow his grass this summer, “for the first time since the ’80s.”

Case Three:
A Tricky Toe Heals

Patricia Howell, 47, had a wound on her left pinkie toe that just wouldn’t improve. The reason? A vascular condition called Buerger’s disease, which is often linked to smoking and can cause blood clots and damage to skin tissue, particularly in the extremities. There was no available treatment; the Mooresville resident could only monitor the toe—which, she says, was “very sensitive to touch”—to make sure it wasn’t getting worse. She learned about the IU study from her Methodist Hospital vascular surgeon, a colleague of Murphy’s. In October 2010, she received the injections, and the toe finally healed. Howell is now able to have a more active lifestyle, walking several miles a week and riding an exercise bike.


Illustration by Carl Wiens

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue.