Dr. Ken Fujise shares secrets to longevity, plus latest advances in stem cell research.
Early to bed, early to rise—everyone knows that old adage. Not many of us take it to heart. Japanese-born Dr. Ken Fujise does. He spent his childhood in Yamagata with his grandfather, who was in the Japanese Navy.
“He always taught me that to be healthy, you have to get up early and go to bed early,” recalls Fujise. “He said it’s best way to be productive. I did not forget that lesson.” Dr. Fujise, who came to Galveston five years ago and is Director of the Division of Cardiology at UTMB, is well known by his colleagues as a man who lives an extremely disciplined, yet amazingly healthy and energetic life. His patients benefit most from his philosophy of life and medicine.
Dr. Fujise’s day unfolds like clockwork. He’s focused nearly every moment, and hard to catch up with, unless you like swimming laps at 5:30 in the morning. “I get up every morning at about 4:30 a.m. and begin the day by reading some classic literature, meditating, and having a big cup of Matcha tea, made for me by my wife, Tamami,” says Dr. Fujise. “The tea leaves come from a green tea tree from Japan. I encourage everyone to try the Japanese tradition of drinking tea.” He explains that for maximum health benefit, Matcha tea is made by mixing water with a powder of finely ground very young green tea leaves. Unlike with brewed tea, the entire leaf is consumed instead of being discarded after steeping.
After his tea, Dr. Fujise heads for his pre-dawn swim, taking care to document his times and number of laps on his watch. He swims between 30 and 40 minutes, returns home for breakfast, and marks his trip to the pool on his calendar with the intention of looking back and calculating that he’s spent at least 75 percent of his time exercising over the course of the year. “For years, my wife has made the same breakfast for me—seafood salad,” Dr. Fujise says. The seafood is a great source of protein mixed with vegetables, rice vinegar, and wasabi paste. “Portion control is key. People live longer if they control their portions.”
Longevity is Dr. Fujise’s ultimate goal for his patients. Currently, he’s beginning a clinical trial to test the results of a new kind of stem cell therapy for patients who have suffered serious heart attacks. Stem cells are nature’s own transformers, with the incredible ability to repair damaged tissue. “Up until now, the standard therapy has been reperfusion therapy,” he explains. “We would do the balloon angioplasty and put in the stent. The patient would need this procedure within 90 minutes of the arrival to the emergency department in order to do well, but some patients have waited too long and sustain major damage to their heart. This can result in heart failure, arrhythmia, or other major problems. These patients are candidates for this clinical trial.”
Dr. Fujise says that UTMB is one of several medical centers involved with this FDA-approved clinical trial, funded by a pharmaceutical company called NeoStem. The trial is in its early stages and will probably continue for another two years. He explains the process: “We take the patient’s bone marrow, which is a great source of stem cells. We send it to NeoStem and, through a very special process, they select the right stem cells and send them back within three days.” The next step is in the cardiac catheterization lab. “We infuse the stem cells directly into the patient’s heart artery—right into the muscle. This is still in phase two clinical trials, but we have hope that the stem cells will correct the damage to the heart muscle.”
If the trial proves successful, it’s possible that stem cells can literally mend broken hearts. Dr. Fujise adds that it will become possible to use stem cells from one’s own body, not from embryos. “Last year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was aawarded to two doctors who invented a procedure in which stem cells can be generated from the patient’s own skin cells. This means that soon, all stem cells can be generated from the patient’s own body without concerns about rejection due to immune reactions. There will be no ethical discussions about destroying embryos. Truly, these new procedures are going to be complete game-changers.”
“In order for this trial to work, we have to enroll a sufficient number of patients with the right criteria,” Dr. Fujise explains. “It’s possible that other candidates for this therapy could be heart failure patients as well. If the trial results are positive, we think it’s possible that heart function can improve more than 5 percent. This sounds like a small number, but it is a huge difference for the patient.”
The possibilities for his patients are endless, but the day is coming to an end and Dr. Fujise’s grandfather’s words are never far from his mind. After he leaves work, he returns home to Tamami and their toddler daughter, they have dinner, and for 30 minutes each evening, they enjoy a glass of organic red wine on their patio as they gaze out upon the Gulf. They do not watch TV—there is no television in their home. “It’s just too distracting,” he says. “It took up too much time, so I pulled the plug.” He’ll be early to bed. Tomorrow morning, he’ll be early to rise, and after he completes his usual morning routine, he’ll be back at the hospital, finding new ways to heal hearts.
Stem Cells 101
Why are stem cells so important to finding cures for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease?
- Self-renewal: stem cells can renew themselves almost indefinitely. This is also known as proliferation.
- Differentiation: stem cells have the special ability to differentiate into cells with specialized characteristics and functions.
- Unspecialized: stem cells themselves are largely un-specialized cells which then give rise to specialized cells.