Researchers at the University of Bristol, funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), have developed ‘stem cell plasters’ to revolutionise 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 UK. 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 are not completely biological and 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 in a few months or years.
A child might therefore have to go through the same heart operation multiple times throughout its childhood, which keeps them in hospital for weeks at a time, hugely impacts their quality of life and causes a lot of stress for the family.
Now, BHF Professor Massimo Caputo 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 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 UK. 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 Professor Caputo nearly £750,000 with the aim to get these patches ready for testing in patients so clinical trials can start in the next two years, enabling more children and babies to benefit from the life-altering technology. 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.
Massimo Caputo, BHF Professor of Congenital Heart Surgery at the Bristol Heart Institute, University of Bristol, 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 personalised stem cell and genetically-engineered treatments for the most complex of heart defects.”
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, added: “If successful, this new stem cell therapy that acts like a healing plaster could revolutionise 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.”
The work was partly funded by the National Institute of Health and Care (NIHR) Bristol Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR Bristol BRC), a partnership between University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UBHW) and the University of Bristol.