3D-printed protein patch could repair scarred heart tissue

A patch of cells made by 3D printing heart proteins has been shown to help heal scarred heart tissue after a heart attack. This could be an important step towards treating patients with tissue damage after heart attacks.

According to the World Health Organisation, heart disease is the number one cause of death globally, killing and incapacitating millions of people every year.

During a heart attack, blood flow to the heart muscle is lost, causing cells to die. Our bodies cannot regenerate these heart muscle cells, so the body forms tough scar tissue to repair the damage. These scar cells can obstruct the electrical signals that control the pumping action of the heart, compromising heart function and increasing the risk of future heart failure.

Helping the heart repair and recover function after scarring has been a research priority for many years. A new approach, by University of Minnesota researchers, uses 3D bioprinting to create a patch to help mend the damaged heart.

Unlike previous similar studies, this patch uses a 3D digital scan of the structural proteins of the heart tissue. The model is made flesh by 3D printing with proteins native to the heart onto a matrix and integrating heart cells derived from adult stem cells. By using 3D printing to construct the patch, the researchers can mimic the structure of real heart tissue to a resolution of one micrometre.

The small clump of cells began to grow and beat within a dish in the laboratory.

The patch was placed inside a mouse after simulating a heart attack and the researchers found that the patch led to an improvement in heart function after four weeks.

“We were quite surprised by how well it worked, given the complexity of the heart,” said Professor Brenda Ogle, a biomedical engineer at the University of Minnesota. “We were encouraged to see that the cells had aligned in the scaffold and showed a continuous wave of electrical signal that moved across the patch.”

Since the patch was made from cells and proteins native to the heart, it was absorbed into the heart, requiring no further surgeries. Following their success in the mouse model, the researchers are beginning to develop a larger patch that could be tested in a pig.

“This is a significant step forward in treating the number one cause of death in the US,” said Professor Ogle. “We feel that we could scale this up to repair hearts of larger animals and possible even humans within the next several years.”

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