Bristol Heart Institute Building Living Arteries

Main content

New research to develop ‘living’ arteries at Bristol Heart Institute could remove the need for multiple traumatic operations in babies and children born with structural heart defects. 

In the UK at least 1 in 180 babies is born with congenital heart disease each year.  To help these babies to survive, cardiac surgeons often have to perform complex surgery to replace and correctly position defective arteries and valves.  The current grafts used in these repairs, is made of a non-living material.  This means that while the baby’s heart grows rapidly during the first year, the grafts do not grow and the child will need further surgery to replace the grafts. 

Heart Research UK hopes that research will lead to a reduction in the number of operations these children need to have in the future.  The national charity, has awarded a grant of £76,000 to fund a three year research project, led by Paolo Madeddu, Professor of Experimental Cardiovascular Medicine within the School of Clinical Sciences, Bristol, to grow blood vessels that will behave like life-like arteries and grow as the child’s heart grows.

During this pioneering research the team will use special cells from the baby’s umbilical cord to grow ‘blood vessels’.  These cells, called pericytes, will be placed in a special incubator where they will be grown to form tube-shaped ‘biomaterials’ that behave like blood vessels.   This ‘living graft’ can then be used by a cardiac surgeon to correct the child’s heart defect. 

Professor Madeddu said that if the research is successful, it will potentially improve the health of babies born with structural heart defects by reducing the need for further surgery.  “If we can successfully grow ‘living’ arteries from cells taken from the umbilical cord and use these arteries when repairing children’s hearts, it will be a huge step forward for babies born with heart defects and the surgeons and professionals caring for them.   

“It could significantly improve the lives of babies born with heart defects, as baby’s could have their heart defects corrected shortly after birth, without the need for multiple traumatic operations as they get older.”

Heart Research UK National Director, Barbara Harpham, said: “Heart Research UK funds research that aims to benefit patients as soon as possible.  These ‘living grafts’ would grow with the child and remove the need for multiple operations as they get older.  This will help the child and their parents by removing the anxiety and upheaval caused by multiple operations and could also save the NHS money by reducing the number of operations and after care these children need.