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Baby with heart defect ‘probably saved’ by experimental stem cell injection

Baby with heart defect ‘probably saved’ by experimental stem cell injection

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Doctors in the UK say they have developed patches based on stem cells that should repair heart defects in babies more effectively. An earlier version of the experimental treatment has apparently already saved the life of an infant, and the team plans to begin clinical trials of the technology soon.

Two years ago, doctors at the Bristol Heart Institute received special permission to inject stem cells directly into a failing infant’s heart. The baby, identified as Finley, had a heart defect that left the two main arteries that supply blood to the lungs and body misaligned. The surgery had successfully restored the arteries, but Finley developed serious complications afterwards, leaving him in intensive care and on a ventilator. After several failed treatments, Finley was scheduled for another operation, but doctors theorized that the additional injection of stem cells — cells that can mature into many other cell types — could improve his chances of survival by regenerating his damaged heart tissue.

The treatment “probably saved Finley’s life,” Bristol chief surgeon and professor Massimo Caputo told the BBC. Eventually, Finley was weaned off the ventilator and other medications. He was allowed to go home for the first time when he was six months old.

Caputo and his team have since refined the treatment of Finley. The stem cells are now placed on a scaffold, which is then sewn to the defective parts of the heart. There are similar patches that are commonly used to repair these types of heart defects in children, but they are made from materials that are not entirely biological. This disadvantage increases the risk of the immune system attacking the material, which can lead to scarring of the surrounding heart or eventual degradation of the material. These patches also cannot grow over time, meaning children often need multiple surgeries to insert new patches as they get older. The hope is that the team’s patches will not only increase the heart’s ability to heal itself, but also grow with the child’s developing body and reduce or eliminate the need for repeat surgeries.

“For years, families have come to us and asked why their child kept having to have heart surgery. Although any surgery can be life-saving, the experience can be incredibly distressing for both the child and their parents. We believe our stem cell patches will be the answer to these problems,” Caputo said in a statement released by the institute.

Caputo and his team received a grant from the British Heart Foundation to further develop their patches. If all goes according to plan, they expect to start clinical trials within the next two years. As for Finley, two years later he seems to be doing just fine.

“We cannot thank Massimo enough. I don’t think Finley would be here with us today without the stem cell treatment. Finley is very spirited and very funny — he’s a real warrior of heart and I tell him that all the time,” his mother, Melissa Hudd, said in a statement.

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