By Kristina Houck
Cardiologist Dr. Richard Schatz has helped saved countless lives — many who aren’t his patients. Along with Dr. Julio Palmaz, Schatz co-invented the first successful coronary stent.
The tiny wire-mesh, balloon expandable tubes are now used in 2 million patients annually to repair clogged arteries near the heart and elsewhere in the body.
“It’s the most durable medical device,” said Schatz, a local resident who started his practice in 1982 and joined Scripps Clinic in 1990. “It spans the globe.”
Using a balloon at the end of a catheter to open up a plaque-filled artery, Dr. Andreas Gruentzig performed the first coronary angioplasty in 1977.
In 1980, vascular radiologist Palmaz developed the concept of a metal sleeve that could be placed on top of the balloon, carried to the target and deployed by balloon expansion to support the walls of the artery and prevent collapse. But he needed funding.
“He had this brilliant idea of putting a piece of metal inside blood vessels to keep them open,” said Schatz, who was then a cardiologist at Brooke Army Medical Center. “He had done a lot of very good work on it. His concept was so clever, I knew it could be adapted to the coronaries.”
Schatz began working with Palmaz in 1985 to create an expandable stent and obtain funding.
In 1987, the first patient successfully received a Palmaz-Schatz stent in Brazil. The pair patented their stent in 1988 as Johnson & Johnson licensed and invested in its development.
In 1991, the Food and Drug Administration approved it for use in peripheral arteries. In 1994, the stent was approved for use in the coronaries.
More than two decades later, millions of stents are still being used every year.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been so long,” said Schatz, who noted Intellectual Property magazine named the Palmaz-Schatz stent one of 10 patents that changed the world.
“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about it because we still use them. The stent has been an extraordinary contribution in its longevity and durability. Very few devices last that long. Nothing’s replaced it.”
A New York native, Schatz wanted to be an NFL quarterback. He played football, baseball, track and field, and other sports in high school. He was also a trained gymnast.
His mother knew both her sons would be doctors. And she was right. Schatz’s older brother became a general surgeon. While at Duke University School of Medicine, Schatz decided to be a cardiologist.
“I was always fascinated with the heart — the anatomy, the physiology, the clinical challenges,” he said. “To me, it seemed to be the hardest of all specialties.”
From delivering newspapers and pumping gas, to mowing lawns and washing dishes, Schatz held a variety of jobs to pay for college. He also volunteered for the Army in 1972, in the midst of the Vietnam War.
After he earned his medical degree in 1977, Schatz completed his residency at Letterman Army Medical Center and his fellowship at Brooke Army Medical Center. He later held the position of clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center and served as director of research and education at the Arizona Heart Institute.
Today, Schatz is the research director of cardiovascular interventions at the Heart, Lung and Vascular Center at Scripps Clinic, as well as the director of cell therapy.
Like with the development of the stent, Schatz is always researching new solutions to help people. He is currently conducting clinical trials in the field of stem cells and gene therapy for angiogenesis in heart patients with severe angina.
One of his trials is called, ALLSTAR, which evaluates infused allogeneic cardiosphere-derived stem cells, or donor stem cells, in patients who have had a recent heart attack.
During the trial, donor stem cells will be infused into the area of the heart that was damaged by the heart attack. Six months later, participants will have an imaging test to assess if the stem cells have helped reduce damage caused by the heart attack. The first trial patient was treated with donor stem cells on Sept. 25.
“There’s only two trials in the country that use donor cells,” Schatz said. “If they really work, it will be gigantic because you can take a cell off the shelf for the patient.”
“Research, if it works, is very rewarding,” he said. “Restoring people to where they can enjoy their lives again is really very gratifying.”