Meet Dr. Alex Vasquez
Dr. Alex Vasquez is a leading interventional cardiologist at The Heart Center in Huntsville, Alabama and a primary investigator on numerous clinical trials. He is one of the many distinguished physicians that have committed their time and resources to the pursuit of information and research gathered from clinical trials. In this interview, he explains why he chooses to participate in clinical trials; his advice on how we can change the mindset of medical professionals, and how his patients view the exciting promise of adult stem cell therapies.
How did you choose a career in medicine, and ultimately cardiology?
I come from a family of physicians, so it made sense that I would end up in a career in medicine. I am originally from Guatemala and received my medical degree there, but then came to the U.S. to complete my training. I chose cardiology first for its complexity, but also partly because of its simplicity: cardiologists can make an immediate impact on people’s lives. In the cardiac field we have a plethora of diagnostic tools at our disposal and multiple therapeutic options that can deliver immediate results. But despite these advances there is no single therapy directed at reversing cellular and tissue damage post AMI (acute myocardial infarction or heart attack). That is why I am excited about the potential contribution of adult stem cell therapies.
Tell us about the clinical trial work you are performing in Huntsville.
In addition to our clinical practice, we have a large, cardiologist-led research facility that allows us to run anywhere from 35-45 clinical research trials. As part of every patient encounter, I try to answer the question: “Does this patient qualify for any of our available research projects?” One of my mentors loves to say that every patient deserves to be involved in a clinical research trial.
How do we get more people excited about adult stem cells?
The preliminary data on autologous stems cells is as innovative as it is promising. I am confident that as more data becomes available from ongoing and future clinical trials in humans, more people will be lining up to learn about possible treatments and cures using adult stem cells. Most patients are excited about clinical trials, especially those who have limited options. Sure, I get the guinea pig comment a lot. But the more you can educate patients and families about the science and the rationale behind the clinical trials, the more you can change people’s perceptions about them. And of course, as a physician you have to believe that the treatment you are recommending is beneficial and the best option for your patient.
How do we change static attitudes in the medical profession towards adult stem cells?
Education, education, education!! Stem cell biology and therapies are becoming part of today’s medical school curriculum and, interestingly enough, the curriculum of allied professions as well. More widespread acceptance will come in the next few years as physicians and the general population begin to understand the process and access the data from research trials. The stigma of embryonic stems cells lingers and is ever present, even among health care professionals. Those of us in the practice need to take the time to address questions and misinformation with thorough research and sound scientific data. Rarely does basic scientific information fail to overcome reactionary and contradicting attitudes.
The deeper we get into a trial, the more physicians and patients hear about it through word of mouth, which is important to build excitement and support for these trials. We also have champions in the news arena that we need to leverage. We can’t underestimate the need for influential press and objective media coverage for our data results.
How do your patients react when you explain that an adult stem cell therapy is leveraging your body’s own cells?
Patients are incredibly receptive to the idea of using their own stem cells as a therapeutic alternative. Many patients are excited and hopeful that there is something new on the horizon, particularly when dealing with a
potentially life threatening diagnosis. When it comes to treating inheritable disorders, altruism never fails to show up. Many a patient has agreed to participate in a trial based on the potential benefit this could offer to future generations.
What can ordinary people do to inspire others to learn more about adult stem cell therapies?
Never before have patients and their families had access to such a wealth of information and means to share that
information with others. People can participate in clinical trials, then share their experiences in forums, support groups and blogs. I often talk to people who ask about a clinical trial based on what they have read on the internet. In the era of social media, the sky is the limit!