A new treatment that is being developed by researchers will hopefully grant surgeons the ability to treat the heart defects of children, without the heart having to be replaced. So far, the studies have only been completed on lambs, however if the scientists can translate the information they have discovered from the tests completed on lambs to humans, it could revolutionise treatments for children who suffer with congenital heart disease as they would no longer have to undergo many open-heart surgeries. A congenital heart disease occurs when there is an abnormality in the structure of the heart, this normally occurs at birth.
The researchers first step in achieving what they did was to create a framework from skin cells called fibroblasts and proteins called fibrin. Fibroblasts are cells found in connective tissue and the function of fibroblasts is that they play a role in the healing of wounds around the body. Fibrin is a non-globular protein and it can be found in areas of the body where blood clotting is occurring. For many weeks the group of researchers nurtured the skin cells of the sheep so that the cells could produce collagen. Collagen is the main protein that can be found in skin, connective tissue and bone, and its function is to provide the skin its structure and strength. The material that the researchers had harvested was not strong enough for implantation, however what they had was a graft that would not trigger an immune response from the lambs immune system (a graft is a piece of living tissue that can be surgically transplanted).
From their studies, they concluded that the lambs who had the artificial tubes had naturally put on the correct amount of weight as they were growing. Also the implanted vessels had grown in size and taken up a shape that naturally occurs in pulmonary arteries. The mechanical properties of the implanted vessels had almost no difference from that of a regular, natural pulmonary artery which is really promising news for the future of this treatment.
As a traditional method of treatment, surgeons have relied on materials that are synthetic as well as transplants from the recently deceased. Although this new method is more expensive than traditional methods, the risks associated are far lower than open-heart operations and so I believe that this is a justified expense. In the near future, the research team hope to complete this testing in more animals and eventually in humans.