Family & Education

A heartfelt mission to save lives

A ground-breaking stem cell treatment for heart disease gave Ian Rosenberg a precious extra three years of life. Now his widow's mission is to give others the same chance


When Ian Rosenberg was diagnosed with a serious heart condition, the future looked bleak — and unbearably short, as he was given only weeks to live. On the advice of his specialist, he travelled with his wife Jenifer to Frankfurt and underwent cardiac stem cell therapy, during which his heart was injected with his own stem cells. That was back in 2003, and the pioneering treatment gave him another three years of life.

Angry that his survival depended on travelling abroad, Rosenberg, together with his wife, founded the Heart Cells Foundation to fund trials for this treatment to be available in the UK. Some 17 years later, their charity has not only enabled three initial trials to be held, but has funded a compassionate stem cell centre based in St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

The centre opened three years ago but Covid has inevitably slowed things down, as staff have had to be deployed elsewhere. “We still have a small staff in touch with patients,” says Jenifer Rosenberg, who is chair of the Foundation continuing her late husband’s work. “We have now got 50 patients in the pipeline waiting to be treated. The treatment is on hold, but not the preparatory work that goes into assessing a patient. They have to be processed; they have to have so many scans and x-rays and for every five patients we see, only one is suitable. There’s an awful lot of work that has to go on.”

She is passionate about seeing the work progress. “There is no funding in the UK from the National Health Service for treating patients who have heart disease with their own stem cells. The only treatment available is what we are offering at Bart’s, with what the Heart Cells Foundation is funding.

“The heart is a pump and if part of it is damaged, it does not pump as well, so therefore it doesn’t pump fluid around your body, and then you get a condition called heart failure, which is very debilitating. You get swollen ankles, you can’t breathe, and you can’t climb stairs. Stem cells are injected back into the heart and they are able to regenerate the damaged tissue and create an improvement in the performance of the heart.”

Adult stem cells are a natural repair system for the body and if a patient’s own cells are used, they will not be rejected. With a more efficient heart muscle, less medication is required.

The need to raise funds is ongoing and Rosenberg has a variety of plans in the pipeline, including a charity screening of the latest James Bond film, a day before its general release. which is due to be at the end of September. With its opening having already been postponed more than once because of the pandemic, Rosenberg knows it may well be out of her hands.

Working for charity is something she is particularly good at; for years she has been on Jewish Care’s Bridge Extravaganza committee, a formidable group of immaculately coiffed women who have raised huge amounts for the charity’s services through an annual bridge tournament. She is also on Jewish Care’s Woman of Distinction committee, which is particularly apt, as she is quite a woman of distinction herself, having been awarded the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman of the Year in 1986 and an OBE for services to industry in 1989.

It all started back in 1960 when she joined Marks & Spencer, where she became a senior fashion buyer by her late 20s. “I had the best time of my life, I was so lucky. It was the most amazing experience. I had so many opportunities to climb up the corporate ladder. The whole fashion scene was exploding — the 60s was a big time in the UK. We had the Beatles, we had Mary Quant, we had Twiggy, and Marks & Spencer picked up on a lot of the trends.

“I was in the right place at the right time. I remember selling our first mini skirts — we had to get board approval for mini skirts — 16 inches, which was jolly short; they had never seen anything like it! But the board approved it. I was based in Baker Street and they would stroll down to Marble Arch to see what was happening and ask the customers what they thought, they were so hands-on.”

The hands-on approach is something she has applied to all aspects of her life. “That’s what I’ve taken: I can delegate, but I don’t have to. The other thing I’ve learnt from M&S which I’ve carried through my whole life is structure. I think structure is very important and having a plan, to know where you are going and what you are going to do. Every single day I have to have a list of what I am doing.”

After Rosenberg left Marks & Spencer, she formed her own fashion company, J & J Fashions, which became Britain’s largest privately owned ladieswear manufacturer and ended up supplying her former company. Marks & Spencer was (and still is) notoriously picky in the standards it demands from suppliers.

“This is what I learnt from them: you have to have high standards. Why charity is important is also something I learnt from M&S, because they were very charitable. I became aware of how important it was to be involved in charity, whether you’re giving money or your time or your experience.”

Now she is drawing upon all her experience to continue the work of the Heart Cells Foundation and make her late husband’s dream a reality.

“Our vision is to have treatment available to everybody in the UK. To do that, although we have had the initial three gold standard trials, we now have to find the money to fund a bigger trial. We are putting a plan together that we can approach some of the big medical trusts. Then we can roll out the treatment across the whole UK — at the moment it is only available at St Bartholomew’s.”

What does she think her husband would say if he saw what had been achieved so far? “He would be very thrilled. If he met a lot of the patients, he would be very moved about how it improved their lives and, in a lot of instances, saved their lives. He has left the most wonderful legacy.”

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