What the future of regenerative medicine looks like – An interview with Dr. Simon H. Stertzer

Dr. Simon H. Stertzer_Main
Dr. Simon H. Stertzer

Dr. Simon H. Stertzer is Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and has devoted his career to the advancement of cardiovascular intervention. Notable contributions include: performing the first coronary balloon angioplasty in the United States, advancement of rotational atherectomy, sheathless coronary and drug delivery stents, and presently, direct stem cell implantation into the heart muscle of patients with heart failure.

Dr. Stertzer co-founded numerous interventional startups, including BioCardia®, Inc., a biotechnology regenerative medicine company that develops innovative therapeutics for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He is currently Chairman of the Board of Directors at BioCardia.

We chatted with Dr. Stertzer and we touched on everything from his lifestyle to the future of regenerative medicine. Below is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you first become interested in cardiovascular medicine? In other words, why did you choose the heart as a subject to study and specialize in versus any other part of the human anatomy? Does it have anything to do with your Certificat de Physiologie at the Sorbonne, or other undergraduate studies in Humanities?

A:  I had always been interested in the manner in which the heart functioned, even as a youngster. The undergraduate year I spent in France, at the Sorbonne, under Prof. Henri Lenormant, allowed me to understand the physiology of the heart and circulation even before I entered medical school.

Q: You pioneered a subspecialty called Interventional Cardiology, and were the first to perform a coronary angioplasty in the US, in 1978. Can you explain in lay terms what this procedure does and its long term benefits versus “traditional” heart surgeries?

A:  Interventional Cardiology is a subspecialty of Cardiology wherein, in addition to making diagnoses of heart disease in the catheterization suite, we actually affect structural abnormalities in the heart with devices introduced from the outside of the body. “Traditional”, or open heart surgery, involves opening the chest cavity, and is obviously far more invasive, and frequently attended by major complications and prolonged recovery.

Q: When initiating new procedures in any field, there’s a lot of professional and other resistance. What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?

A:  Until there are formal, double blinded, randomized, FDA approved trials, it is sometimes difficult to convince people that a new therapy is truly effective. Until trials, time, and more familiarity was gained globally, by coronary angioplasty, it was met with a significant resistance from many who simply deplore change until the data becomes incontrovertible.

Q: Did becoming a cardiologist change your own lifestyle?

A: Definitely. Being a cardiologist doesn’t protect you from heart disease, but it forces you to recognize and reduce the generally accepted risk factors that are modifiable.

Q: The AHA estimates that one in five adults will develop heart failure after the age of 40. Why is that number so high? What types of people are prone to heart failure? What do you recommend people do to keep their hearts healthy?

A:  Since we are able to reduce heart attack, cancer and other chronic diseases to a greater extent than in the previous century, the older population is now living long enough to develop heart failure. Although there are many causes of heart failure, poorly treated high blood pressure, and previous myocardial infarction (heart attacks) are probably the major ones. Heart failure from valvular, and primary heart muscle disease, are examples of other causes. Evaluation of patients’ individual risk factors by their internists and cardiologists is doubtless the best way to reduce the risk of heart failure in life.

Q: Since that first coronary angioplasty, you focused your efforts on developing newer technologies like atherectomy, stents, and drug delivery stents for the advancement of cardiac intervention for patients with heart disease. More recently, you have been involved in the development of transendocardial stem cell implantation in ischemic heart failure. Can you explain in simple words what that is, who needs it, and how it can save lives?

A:   Angioplasty, stents and drug delivery stents are interventional techniques that have totally changed the landscape of cardiac treatment modalities over the past 40 years. We are now looking towards a new era of heart muscle regeneration to improve cardiac conditions. One of these treatments, now the subject of intense investigations, is the transendocardial implantation of stem cells directly into the heart muscle from the outside of the body. These stem cells are a complex and varied group of cells and preparations that may improve the outlook for patients with heart muscle disease.

Q: Where do you see the most advanced treatments of heart disease going in the next 10-20 years?

A:  It is always difficult to accurately predict the future, whether with respect to artificial intelligence, electric, self-driving cars, or any other drastic societal change. That said, I believe we will experience a revolution in regenerative medicine, wherein organs like heart or liver or lung, with the help of stem cell therapy, or other biologic stimuli, might be able to recreate new tissues to replace damaged ones.

Healthcare Weekly recently interviewed Dr. Stertzer. Click here to read.


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