Big hope for little hearts: Stem cells save lives

Reporter: Amy Oshier
FILE – In this Friday, March 16, 2012 file photo, a researcher works in a stem cell lab on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif. New guidelines released Wednesday, May 26, 2021 remove a decades-old barrier to stem cell research, recommending that researchers be allowed to grow human embryos longer under limited conditions. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

Almost one out of 100 babies is born with a heart defect each year in the United States. Many of these babies will need surgery within weeks of birth, followed by more surgeries throughout their lives. Now, doctors are turning to stem cells to give big hope for little hearts.

“Hypoplastic left heart syndrome is a complex congenital heart disease. It is where the left ventricle does not develop,” Sunjay Kaushal, MD, PhD, Chief of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery at Lurie Children’s Hospital, explains.

Those newborns depend solely on their right ventricle to pump blood throughout their body.

Dr. Kaushal emphasizes, “These babies need surgical intervention in the first weeks of life.”

Fifteen to 20 percent of those babies will not live to their first birthday. For the little ones who do, medications and implanted devices can help, but ultimately, those children will need a heart transplant to survive.

“That right ventricle becomes tired. It doesn’t pump blood efficiently,” Dr. Kaushal further explains.

Pediatric cardiac surgeons at Lurie Children’s Hospital are injecting stem cells directly into the heart to revitalize the worn-out right ventricle.

“We’re trying to see if we can actually put stem cells in there in order to remodel, rejuvenate that right ventricle in order to pump blood more efficiently for that baby,” Dr. Kaushal exclaims.

In the long run, stem cell therapy could possibly prevent those children from needing a heart transplant at all.
Dr. Kaushal adds, “I think that these studies could be game-changing for our babies.”

Thirty-eight patients will be enrolled at seven clinical sites across the United States for a phase two clinical trial this year. Researchers hope that eventually, the stem cell injections will not have to be given as an injection into the heart, but as an intravenous injection like other medicine.

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