Stem cells to the rescue: Fixing heart defects in children

Published On: Jul 20 2013 09:45:55 PM CDT   Updated On: Jul 20 2013 10:40:40 PM CDT
Stem Cells Baby
MIAMI, Fla. -

More than 35,000 babies are born with a heart defect.  For many, this means a lifetime of surgery and medicine. Now, for the first time, doctors are using stem cells to save their smallest patients and hopefully keep them off medication and out of the OR.

Analiah runs the Duarte home, literally.

“I try to walk with her and she’s like leave me alone,” Johanna Duarte, Analiah’s mom, told Ivanhoe.

She was born with one of the most lethal and rare congenital heart defects. It’s called Ebstein’s anomaly one of Analiah’s heart valves failed to form.  

“They’re left with this horrible non-functional valve that allows blood to slosh back and forth inside their heart,” Redmond Paul Burke, MD, Chief in the Division of Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgery at Miami Children's Hospital, told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Burke says it causes hearts to grow four, five, six times larger than normal.

“Analiah was born with a heart that filled her entire chest,” Dr. Burke said.

Previously, surgeons would repair, replace, or close her valve, but that surgery would need to be done over and over as she grows.

“The holy grail for heart valve repair and replacement is a valve that will grow with the child,” Dr. Burke said.

Doctor’s created the valve out of extracellular matrix, a substance extracted from a pig’s bladder. The implant acts like a fishnet. It captures stem cells flowing in Analiah’s blood stream. The cells attach to the impact, grow around it, and create a new heart valve.

“We could see, for the first time in her life, the valve that we had created opening and closing,” Dr. Burke explained.

A year later, Analiah’s valve is working. As a result, her heart is now a third of the original size.

Dr. Burke says Analiah’s new valve should grow with her throughout her life; so she would not need a transplant, drugs, or more surgery. He also believes this could be used in adults to replace heart valves.