Heart valve breakthrough for sick children

A human heart valve which could eliminate the need for children with defective valves to undergo repeat surgery is likely to be available within five years.

Scientists from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland created the valve in a laboratory using materials found in the body.

It is the first time researchers have successfully made a valve capable of functioning for prolonged periods and adapting to the growing body.

Head of the Tissue Engineering Research Group at RCSI and principal project investigator, Fergal O’Brien said it was a particularly difficult challenge.

“We have been working on the project for five years. We are now at a stage where we have a functioning valve,” said Prof O’Brien.

“Up to now, the problem with tissue engineered heart valves developed in the lab is that they did not shut properly.”

About one in five people needing a heart valve replacement every year are children and because they are growing they often need several open heart surgeries to fit new valves.

The director of the research programme is Claire Brougham, a bio-medical engineering expert who lectures at Dublin Institute of Technology and a part-time PhD Student at RCSI.

Prof O’Brien said they developed a biomaterial in the lab from collagen and fibrin materials and used it to construct an anatomically correct heart valve shape.

Because the materials used in the valve are both proteins, they break down over time and are replaced by the body’s own tissue.

“What we have done is worked really, really hard to find a way to control the rate at which the implant degrades,” he said.

The scientists have been able to put the valve into a bio-reactor — a device that replicates the condition of the heart and will now test it on animals.

Testing the valve in humans could start in two to three years at the earliest — a five-year target has been set for this crucial stage.

“As a research group we are very active in the biomedical area — we have two bone and cartilage repair technologies going into patients this year,” said Prof O’Brien.

The project, funded by the Irish Heart Foundation and the European Research Foundation, is among a number of innovations being showcased today – RCSI Research Day 2016.

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