In 2011, Jared Ausnehmer left his local hospital carrying the weight of an oxygen tank and the worry of what might come next. At age 21, he’d already defied the odds for those born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a birth defect in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped or nonexistent. With a new diagnosis of heart failure, his doctors revealed grim news: No conventional treatments existed. Then his parents, David and Patty Ausnehmer, saw a news broadcast that changed everything.
After further research online, they discovered the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine and had a phone consult with Timothy Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., a physician and researcher whose work focuses on congenital heart disease. Dr. Nelson, the director of the Mayo Clinic Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, told Jared’s parents that Mayo Clinic was starting stem cell therapy for infants with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and he hoped to one day have a trial for young adults like their son.
A Glimpse of Hope
In the meantime, Jared’s new care team, made up of experts with the Mayo Clinic Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome and the Mayo Clinic Division of Pediatric Cardiology, suggested a more intense medication program to help him better tolerate the effects of a leaky valve. His heart showed that it had more “in reserve” than anyone expected.
“You have this feeling of, ‘My gosh, I’m finally in the right place,’” Patty says. “I saw people who care and were moving mountains for my child.”
Pediatric cardiologist Patrick O’Leary, M.D., said Jared’s heart needed to pump blood to his body rather than his lungs and more blood per minute due the leaky valve.
“The goal was to help Jared’s heart muscle cope with the extra workload it was facing,” says Dr. O’Leary. “Jared improved almost immediately and surprisingly continued to improve with each medication adjustment.”
With the improvement, Jared was able to continue his care from home in Ohio while waiting for a long-term solution to emerge. His care team knew his heart would eventually fail, but they did not know when. Flash forward to 2015 — the family received a long-awaited phone call from Mayo Clinic. Dr. O’Leary said they were ready to begin the stem cell clinical trial and wanted Jared to be the first of 10 participants.
A New Horizon
In the first clinical trial of its kind, Jared had 94 million stem cells from his own bone marrow injected into his right ventricle through a heart catheterization. The results were significant. His care team immediately noted an increase in heart function as the stem cells began to prompt weak areas of the heart to regenerate. Notably, the stem cell therapy was surpassing all expectations for Jared’s heart health. By August 2016, his heart strength had increased enough for him to undergo open-heart surgery where doctors inserted a pacemaker and replaced his leaky valve. After eight days in the hospital, Jared returned home to get back to a normal life. Two months after his surgery, he was cleared to play basketball.
“This pioneering work at Mayo Clinic empowers us all to envision a new horizon in health care,” says Andre Terzic, M.D., Ph.D., Michael S. and Mary Sue Shannon Family Director, Center for Regenerative Medicine; the Marriott Family Director, Comprehensive Cardiac Regenerative Medicine; and the Marriott Family Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine. “Through state-of-the-art research and continuous study, dedicated experts in the Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome have rigorously advanced innovative regenerative therapies with the potential to transform the care of our patients.”
The trailblazing team of physicians, scientists and many other experts in the Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome use a multifaceted approach that includes research into imaging and outcomes, human genetics and regenerative strategies. By using stem cells and other innovative regenerative technologies, Mayo Clinic is on the forefront of turning devastating diagnoses into potentially curable conditions for patients like Jared.
“Today, the sky’s the limit,” Jared says. “I just had a basketball game yesterday, and it feels like nothing is holding me back. I don’t have to worry — I just get to play.”
This article originally appeared in Mayo Clinic Magazine, Volume 32, Issue 1.
Information about many of the clinical trials offered at Mayo Clinic can be found online.