Researchers grow blood vessels in the lab to treat congenital heart disease

27 September 2016        

Category: BHF Comment

A close up image of blood vessels

Researchers from the USA have successfully created blood vessels in the laboratory that will grow as the heart grows. It is hoped that these vessels will eventually be able to be used to treat children born with congenital heart disease.

Congenital heart disease is the most common type of birth defect. In the UK alone over 4,000 babies are diagnosed with congenital heart disease each year.

The only treatment for these conditions is corrective surgery, where a piece of tissue, known as a graft, is used to replace the damaged area. However, often surgery has to be repeated several times throughout childhood as the child’s heart outgrows the graft used to repair it.

This new study, published in Nature Communications by researchers at the University of Minnesota, has shown that in the future surgeons may be able to use a lab-grown blood vessel to repair congenital heart defects. This vessel would then grow with the child's heart, and repeat operations would not be needed.

Reducing the need for multiple operations

Our Medical Director Professor Peter Weissberg, said:

"Thanks to decades of research, most children born with congenital heart disease now survive into adulthood. But sadly, they still often have to undergo multiple operations at a young age as their hearts grow, which can be incredibly distressing for the child and their family.

"This exciting research indicates that it may be possible to create blood vessels in the laboratory that will grow as the heart grows. This could reduce the need for these operations and potentially improve the quality of life for children with congenital heart disease."

Our research into treating congenital heart disease

BHF-funded researchers in Bristol are working on a similar approach in which the baby's own cells are used to create 'living' blood vessels that could one day be used to repair their congenital defects.

The BHF's Mending Broken Hearts Appeal is aimed at accelerating this research so that babies born with congenital heart defects in the future can look forward to a healthy life after a single operation.

Calum's story

Calum with BHF Professor Gianni Angelini

Calum was born with truncus arteriosus, a rare condition which means that the two main arteries which supply blood to the lungs and the body do not arise normally from the heart.

Calum had open heart surgery when he was just 10 days old. He had two further operations when he was four and six years old, and he is scheduled to have a further open heart surgery this year.

Calum's mum Nicola said: "It's incredibly traumatic for Calum every time he has surgery. After an operation two years ago he was in intensive care for 24 hours and had to have intravenous antibiotics for three months afterwards. He’s missed an awful lot of school over the years.

"But as well as the physical there's the psychological impact. Calum has had nightmares a result of what he's been through.

"If these grafts could reduce the number of operations for children like Calum it would have a hugely positive impact on their lives."

Read a blog about research into the impact of heart defects on children and young people.

Fund future breakthroughs

Thanks to your support we are able to fund research into congenital heart disease, which is bringing us closer to new treatments to save and improve lives like Calum's. Help us keep funding research like this.