A medical breakthrough, developing replacement heart valves that grow with the patient, could be just a few years away.
The valves would be given to newborn babies with congenital heart defects.
“The aim of our project, of our research, is to create living heart valves made of the patient’s own cells,” explains Simon P Hoerstrup, Director at the Swiss Centre of Regenerative Medicine at the University Hospital in Zurich
“We first want to create a heart valve made of the baby’s own cells, we call that tissue engineering. So we take cells of the baby, we put them onto a material that has the shape of a heart valve, and then it grows in and forms a new heart valve, a living heart valve.”
One in every hundred newborns has a heart malformations, and half of them will need open-heart surgery.
But that would not be necessary with this technique.
“So what we would do is we would implant a stented heart valve without operation, we can go through a vessel and come into the right position, and replace the defect heart valve with this new heart valve,” says Hoerstrup.
The professor has founded a company, Xeltis, to develop the technology.
Tissue engineering is a new field, and taking a product to market is complex.
“It’s not an established process, and that’s the same also for the regulatory authorities. We have to work together with the authorities to evaluate the product in its safety and efficacy,” says Xeltis Project Manager Jürg Stebler.
Xeltis is one of eight partners in a European Union research project to develop the heart valves.
“There’s another partner in Berlin who bring the minimally invasive implantation technology, there’s another major partner in Holland, in Eindhoven, they have the polymer and scaffold know-how. So it’s bringing all these skills together, and I think it’s only with such a combination that you can really go forward quickly,” says Hoerstrup.
The first patients could receive replacement valves made from their own cells as early as 2014, a prospect that delights Hoerstrup.
“I of course feel very excited about it, that we now are entering, after such a long time of pre-clinical work, the clinical scenario, and that we can start treating pediatric patients with this very new technology,” he says.