HRI researchers pioneer new approach to mend broken hearts

Research Updates
A printer that builds beating 3D hearts in a laboratory could soon be saving the lives of heart attack patients if a pioneering trial proves successful.

The Heart Research Institute has bought a 3D bio-printer to engineer human heart tissue that can be stuck directly to a damaged organ following an attack.

The experiment could dramatically alter the cardiac treatment landscape, giving patients whose hearts are wounded by an attack a chance to fully recover and return to normal life.

“If we can make it work we’ll be...flipping the world of heart attack treatment on its head.” 
Dr Carmine Gentile, HRI research fellow and world leader in 3D tissue culture.

The two common treatments for heart attack, coronary angioplasty and reperfusion therapy, offer excellent results for patients who receive them very soon after an attack, but those who miss out often suffer irreversible heart damage.

With an urgent need for new treatments, HRI investigated the benefits of a bio-printer to print out unique 3D human mini hearts developed by Dr Gentile. These mini hearts, called cardiac spheroids, were built from stem cells to be used as "bio-ink" to print cardiac patches.

HRI was awarded a $44,000 grant by the Ian Potter Foundation to purchase the bio-printer, which will first be used to print patches for testing on animal models in the laboratory prior to their use in humans.

“The idea is these patches will be grafted on to the heart after a heart attack, promoting muscle regeneration and returning cardiac function to normal,” Dr Gentile says.

The printer works by spreading “bio-ink” made from human cells layer-by-layer onto biocompatible sheet, called hydrogel, to generate living 3D bio-printed heart tissues. These bio-printed heart tissues can be used in the lab to safely test new heart drugs and to discover new molecular targets for future therapies.

Ultimately though, the technology will be used to replace the damaged parts of human hearts following heart failure and heart attack. As Dr Gentile explains, the printed patches would be customised to each patient to ensure the best outcome.

“Each patient’s heart is scanned first to map the damage to make sure the patch is the right size and shape,” he says. “We’ll also isolate stem cells from the patient’s own skin to make personalised bio-ink to build compatible heart tissue.”

The patch moulds to the heart, mimicking the role of the original damaged tissue for the rest of the individual’s life.

While plenty of past studies have highlighted the feasibility of 3D printing to improve heart disease outcomes in humans, nobody has yet proved it. If successful, the HRI trial would be the first.

Professor Gemma Figtree at the Kolling Institute who is a collaborating partner on the research, is optimistic about the outcome.

“Dr Gentile’s cardiac spheroids have already shown very promising results in the laboratory,” she says. “They have been successful in overcoming hurdles faced by approaches that use only single cells. The future looks very exciting indeed.”

The researchers expect the therapy could be available for patients in the next five years, and every effort will be made to get the treatment into hospitals as soon as possible. The process will be costly however, as it is expensive to collect biological material like cells to 3D bio-print a human cardiac patch.


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