Cells could be taken from babies born with severe heart defects and used to grow living replacement valves in a laboratory, if technology under development proves successful in real-life trials.
Up to 1 % of babies are born with severe heart defects, and with current technology that means multiple rounds of open-heart surgery as the child grows.
The most common treatment for heart defects which are present from birth is a combination of surgery and catheterisation - where a long thin tube is threaded through the blood vessels to the heart, allowing doctors to do diagnostic tests.
Surgery is often first performed in very young babies, as early treatment can be the most effective way of repairing the heart.
As a result of these proceures, most children born with heart defects go on to live normal healthy lives.
However, techniques under development by a trans-European research collaboration known as LifeValve would require just one minimally invasive heart operation as the tissue would then grow naturally with the child.
‘We've been able to show that the technologies work, and have secured enough funding to finish the project and fulfil the regulator's requirements for starting a large-scale clinical trial,’ said Professor Simon Hoerstrup, head of the Swiss Center of Regenerative Medicine at the University of Zürich.
The cells are placed onto a 3D scaffold and left to multiply. Eventually the scaffold disintegrates, leaving just the living tissue heart valve.
The EU-funded project is part of a revolutionary field of medicine known as tissue engineering where doctors hope to use a patient’s own cells to grow replacement body parts in the laboratory.
One of the major goals of tissue engineering is to grow a complete, fully functioning organ, and in 2011 surgeons in Sweden took a step in this direction, successfully carrying out the world’s first synthetic organ transplant. They covered an artificial replacement windpipe with live cells grown from the patient’s own body and implanted it in a 36-year-old Eritrean cancer patient.
One of the key techniques being used in tissue engineering is to use 3D printing to build scaffolds so that live cells can be grown in the desired shape.
Dr Declan Devine is at the cutting edge of scaffold technology. He travelled from Ireland to Harvard University in the US as part of the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie action to develop scaffolds that incorporate proteins to encourage cells to multiply, making the scaffold cheaper and more effective, under a research project known as NANOFACT. ‘We've been able to show that the technologies work.’
Professor Simon Hoerstrup, Director, Swiss Centre of Regenerative Medicine, University of Zürich
‘We've been able to show that the technologies work.’
Normal scaffolds need the patient to undergo significant surgery to get enough cells, he said. ‘In that sense our scaffolding using growth factors and naturally occurring products in synthetic matrixes enables us to get away from that.’
Now his Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant is over and he’s looking for funding to start testing his technology in people. If he is successful, he believes he could start trials in people in two years.
However, it will still be years until tissue engineering is on offer to patients.
That’s why the TECAS training project, funded by the EU, is bringing researchers from disciplines such as medicine, biology and engineering together with representatives from industry.
‘Getting them together around one table from the beginning … is significantly accelerating the process and shortening the time it takes for a medical invention to move from the bench to the bedside,’ said Dr Sotirios Korossis from the coordinating institution, the Hannover Medical School in Germany.
‘Normally, it would take 10 to 20 years to reach the market. With TECAS we are looking at five to seven years.’
First heart valve surgery
Invention of the heart-lung machine
Living tissue valves
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