Researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K. funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) have developed ‘stem cell plasters’ to revolutionize the way surgeons treat children living with congenital heart disease, so they don’t need as many open-heart operations.
Heart defects are the most common type of anomaly that develop before a baby is born, with around 13 babies diagnosed with a congenital heart condition every day in the U.K. alone. These include defects to the baby’s heart valves, the major blood vessels in and around the heart, and the development of holes in the heart.
Currently, for many of these children, surgeons can perform open-heart surgery to temporarily repair the problem, but the materials used for the patches or replacement heart valves cannot grow with the baby. This means they can be rejected by the patient’s immune system which causes the surgical materials to gradually break down and fail within months or years.
It means a child might have to go through the same heart operation multiple times throughout childhood, which keeps them in hospital for weeks at a time. This impacts their quality of life and causes a lot of stress for the family.
Stem cell patch development
Massimo Caputo, BHF professor of Congenital Heart Surgery at the Bristol Heart Institute, University of Bristol, has developed the first type of stem cell patch to repair abnormalities to the valve in the large blood vessel that controls blood flow from the heart to the lungs, and to mend holes between the two main pumping chambers of the heart.
The stem cell plasters are designed to be sewn into the area of the child’s heart that needs repairing during surgery. The stem cells could then boost the repair of heart tissue without being rejected by the child’s body.
These stem cell patches have the potential to adapt and grow with the child’s heart as they get older, removing the need for repetitive heart surgeries and the many days at hospital recovering after each one.
There are around 200 repeat operations for people living with congenital heart disease every year in the U.K. The technology could save the NHS an estimated £30,000 for every operation no longer needed, saving millions of pounds each year.
The BHF has awarded Caputo nearly £750,000 ($910,000), with the aim of getting stem cell patches ready for testing in patients so clinical trials can start in the next two years. The materials have already proven to work safely in animals.
The team is also in the early stages of developing other stem cell technologies using 3D bioprinting and gene therapy to one day be able to mend more complex congenital heart defects.
Caputo said: “For years families have come to us asking why their child needs to have heart surgery time and time again. Although each operation can be lifesaving, the experience can put an unbelievable amount of stress on the child and their parents. We believe that our stem cell patches will be the answer to solve these problems.
“Our ultimate vision in the next decade is to create a paradigm shift in the way doctors treat congenital heart disease, by developing personalized stem cell and genetically-engineered treatments for the most complex of heart defects.”
Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: “If successful, this new stem cell therapy that acts like a healing plaster could revolutionize the results of heart surgery for children and adults living with congenital heart disease.
“It could offer a solution that means their heart is mended once and forever in a single operation, preventing people from facing a future of repeated surgeries and giving them the gift of a happier and healthier life.”