These cells are then grown over a tiny scaffold that organizes and aligns them in a way that they become functional heart tissue. Since the patches would be made from the patient’s own blood cells, there would be no chance of rejection by the patient’s immune system.
Once the patch tissue matures, MRI scans of the scarred region of the patient’s heart would be used to create a digital template for the new patch, tailoring it to just the right size and shape. A 3D printer would then be used to fabricate the extracellular matrix, the pattern of proteins that surround heart muscle cells.
The fully formed patch would be stitched into place during open-heart surgery, with blood vessel grafts added to link the patch with the patient’s vascular system.
In some cases, a single patch would be enough. For patients with multiple areas of scarring, multiple patches could be used.
Inserting patches will be delicate business, in part because scarring can render heart walls thin and susceptible to rupture. Researchers anticipate that heart surgeons will look at each case individually and decide whether it makes more sense to cut out the scarred area and cover the defect with a patch or simply affix the patch over the scarred area — and hope that, over time, the scars will go away.
Another challenge will be making sure the patches contract and relax in synchrony with the hearts onto which they’re grafted. “We think this will happen because cells of the same type like to seek each other out and connect over time,” Kamp says. “We anticipate that if the patch couples with the native heart tissue, the electrical signals which pass through the heart muscle like a wave and tell it to contract, will drive the new patch to contract at the same rate.”
How much would it cost to patch a damaged heart? Researchers put the price tag at about $100,000. That’s far less than the $500,000 or so it costs give a patient a heart transplant. And regardless of the cost, researchers are upbeat about the possibility of having a new way to treat heart failure.
“Using these patches to repair the damaged muscle is likely to be very effective,” says Henry. “We’re not quite there yet — it’ll be a few years before you see the first clinical trials. But this technology may really provide a whole new avenue of hope for people with these conditions who badly need new treatment options.”
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