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Natural gene therapy may lead to future of healthier hearts

SALT LAKE CITY — Six months after a historic heart procedure, Ernie Lively is living up to his name.

"I can walk wherever I want to go. I play golf on a terribly mountainous course. I play tennis. I chase my grandkids," Lively said laughing.

Lively, who is the father of actress Blake Lively, moved to Utah in 2011 after he was diagnosed with heart disease. In November, he became the first person to receive retrograde gene therapy treatment in the U.S.

The procedure injects human DNA to surround the heart and attract the body's stem cells. The stem cells work to regenerate the heart in a natural, unobtrusive way.

Dr. Amit Patel, director of regenerative medicine at University Hospital, has worked to develop the process for the past eight years. The procedure takes just 20 minutes, does not require anesthesia and allows the patient to leave the hospital the next day.

"We take a little catheter, like a straw, go through the vein and inside the heart. … We let the heart marinate for 10 minutes until the gene actually gets into the tissue," Patel said.

"The genes then recruit its own stem cells from the heart muscle, the blood vessels, from the blood and the bone marrow" to rebuild the heart, he said.

The genes are grown like a plant and picked up like any other drug from the pharmacy, Patel said. They come frozen, are defrosted and then ejected through a vein straight to the source: the heart.

Lively said he was confident in the procedure from the beginning.

"All of the sudden it started to make sense because they are actually teaching the body, programing the body, programing the cells in the body, programing the DNA in the body to fix itself. … I'm here to tell you that it’s working," Lively said.

Before the procedure, Lively could not walk more then a quarter-mile without needing a break, he said. Now, he can go 3 miles to 4 miles without feeling winded.

The 20-minute process Patel coined as the heart's "911 system" takes anywhere from one to three months to see results.

"This is something where you body has to get used to the biologics," Patel said. "Your heart has to remodel."

Since Lively's procedure, there have been 11 other patients at University Hospital who have received retrograde gene therapy and a total of 45 completed in the U.S. Patel has taught 15 other cardiologists around the world how to conduct the process.

For now the procedure remains free because it is still in the research stage. However, Patel said the procedure will cost anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 once it is officially approved in the U.S. — something he said could take anywhere from three to five more years.

For Lively, the procedure meant more than just a second chance at life.

"To get this far is pretty incredible," he said. "I have been given second chances, third chances, fourth chances, so I'd like to figure out what it is I'm supposed to take care of, and then I suppose I'll go peacefully. But right now I'm fighting."

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