Mending the youngest broken hearts

Researchers have shown stem cells from the umbilical cord may hold the key to a new generation of graft and could reduce the number of surgeries required to treat young children born with certain types of congenital heart disease (University of Bristol, 2017).

Congenital heart disease is the most common type of birth defect. In the UK alone over 4,000 babies are diagnosed with congenital heart disease each year and thanks to advances in treatment and care, more than eight out of ten babies with congenital heart disease grow up to be adults. However, the only treatment for these conditions is corrective surgery, where an implant is used to replace the damaged area. Often surgery has to be repeated several times throughout childhood as the child’s heart outgrows the artificial implant used to repair it.

Professor Massimo Caputo and Professor Paolo Madeddu, in the Bristol Heart Institute, a newly created specialist research institute at the University of Bristol, have developed cellular grafts using stem cells from the umbilical cord and placenta that are able to grow like living tissue and it is hoped would be able to grow along with a child’s heart. These new grafts would mean that instead of having multiple operations to insert bigger grafts as the patient’s heart grows only one operation would be needed.

These grafts have been tested in animal models that closely resemble the real world scenario and tested for their capacity to grow and regenerate the damaged heart. The researchers are also exploring which cells are best suited for the graft so that a wide range of treatment options and solutions could be tailored to the patients’ needs. With the first two phases of research completed, the academics are now preparing to start a clinical trial in newborn babies.

Massimo Captuo, Professor of Congenital Heart Surgery from the University of Bristol’s School of Clinical Sciences, said “We believe stem cells from the umbilical cord, usually discarded after birth, could hold the key to a new generation of graft. These grafts grow at the same rate as the children they’re used to treat and reduce the risk of rejection after transplant as they contain the child’s own DNA.”

His colleague Paolo Madeddu, Professor of Experimental Cardiovascular Medicine, said “The long-term outcomes for most young children remains poor and significantly affects their quality of life. By developing these new grafts, we hope to reduce the amount of surgeries that a child born with congenital heart disease must go through.”

The research project has been funded thanks to research grants from the Sir Jules Thorn Charitable Trust, British Heart Foundation, Enid Linder Foundation, Medical Research Council, Heart Research UK and alumni of the University of Bristol.

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