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Baby With Heart Defect 'Probably Saved' by Experimental Stem Cell Injection

Doctors at the Bristol Heart Institute are developing stem cell-based patches that could better repair heart defects in infants.

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Doctors in the UK say they’ve developed stem cell-based patches that should more effectively repair heart defects in babies. An earlier version of the experimental treatment has seemingly already saved one infant’s life, and the team plans to start clinical trials of the technology soon.

Two years ago, doctors at the Bristol Heart Institute were given special permission to directly inject stem cells into an infant’s failing heart. The baby, identified as Finley, had a heart defect where the two main arteries supplying blood to the lungs and the body ended up in the wrong positions. Surgery had successfully switched the arteries back, but Finley developed severe complications afterward that left him in intensive care and on a ventilator. Following several failed treatments, Finley was set to undergo surgery again, but the doctors theorized that the additional injection of stem cells—cells that can mature into many other cell types—might improve his odds of survival by regenerating his damaged heart tissue.

The treatment “probably saved” Finley’s life, Massimo Caputo, lead surgeon and a professor at Bristol, told the BBC. Eventually, Finley was taken off the ventilator and other drugs. At six months of age, he was able to go home for the first time.

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Caputo and his team have since refined the treatment used on Finley. The stem cells are now placed onto a scaffold that’s then sewn onto the defective parts of the heart. There are similar patches commonly used to repair these kinds of heart defects in children, but they’re made with materials that aren’t fully biological. This drawback raises the risk of the immune system attacking the material, which can cause scarring to the surrounding heart or eventually break down the material. These patches also can’t grow over time, meaning that children will frequently need multiple surgeries to insert new ones as they get older. The hope is that the team’s patches will not only boost the heart’s ability to repair itself but grow with the child’s developing body, reducing or eliminating the need for repeated operations.

“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,” said Caputo in a statement released by the institute.

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Caputo and his team have been given a grant by the British Heart Foundation to further develop their patches. Should everything go according to plan, they expect to begin clinical trials within the next two years. As for Finley, he seems to be thriving two years later.

“We can’t thank Massimo enough. I believe, if it wasn’t for the stem cell treatment, then Finley wouldn’t be here with us today. Finley is very feisty and very funny—he’s a real heart warrior and I tell him that all the time,” said his mother Melissa Hudd in a statement.