A healing, pumping patch could be the secret to mending a “broken” heart, according to researchers in the United Kingdom.
The British Heart Foundation (BHF) said the patch could provide an off-the-shelf treatment for people who have suffered heart attacks.
Grown in a lab, the 3cm by 2cm patch is developed from the patient’s own cells, which are then converted into stem cells.
Extremely adaptable, stem cells can change into other types of cells and reproduce more of the same. When sewn into the patient’s heart, the patch will eventually form part of it.
It is designed to physically support the muscles damaged by heart attacks and help the heart pump more efficiently. The patch also releases chemicals to help with the regeneration of existing cells.
Researchers at the British Heart Foundation Cardiovascular Regenerative Medicine Centre, part of Imperial College London, say one or more patches could be implanted into a patient’s heart to prevent or reverse damage.
Human trials are expected to begin in the next two years after successful tests on rabbits, physicians told a conference on Monday evening.
Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the BHF, said the research has “the potential to mend broken hearts and transform lives around the globe”.
“If clinical trials can show the benefits of these heart patches in people after a heart attack, it would be a great leap forward for regenerative medicine.”
Heart attacks occur when blood flow to the organ is disrupted by an arterial blockage. Without blood, the heart is deprived of oxygen and essential nutrients, killing off part of the muscle.
More people than ever are surviving heart attacks – about 1.4 million people in the UK today, according to the BHF.
However, damage to the muscle weakens the heart and makes everyday tasks such as climbing stairs or getting dressed exhausting.
The damage can also lead to heart failure, for which there is no cure. It is hoped the new research will improve the quality of life of survivors of heart attacks and offset their risk of heart failure.
Crucially, the patch can contain around 20m stem cells, with the potential to contain up to 50m, according to Dr Richard Jabbour, researcher and cardiologist at the British Heart Foundation.
“In heart failure, there’s a tremendous amount of cells that are lost. I think around 1bn cells are lost after a heart attack, so if you’re looking to try and restore or regenerate the heart, you need a suitable number of cells,” he told Al Jazeera.
Lab tests have shown the patches start to beat after three days and begin mimicking mature heart tissue within one month.
In animals, blood vessels from the heart were able to grow into the patches and improved heart function was noted.
The patches were developed in response to disappointing results from experiments around the world in which stem cells were directly injected into the damaged heart muscle.
Without a fixed patch, the stem cells are quickly cleared from the heart and aren’t able to affect significant levels of repair.
The ultimate goal is to have a stock of pre-made patches that are compatible with all patients, so a person who has had a heart attack could quickly have one implanted.
Additional reporting by Charlotte Mitchell