Researcher Probes Science to Building a “Bio-Artificial” Heart

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the fact that we don’t really have large number of stem cells in the heart that can repair the heart. It made me curious about why. We do in every other muscle. Stem cells can come in and repair the damage.

I moved to Duke Medical, and was talking a lot about kids with MS, and I realized that those kids with MS, they did fine until they were about 10 or 11. They are able to repair themselves until [they are] 5, 6, 8 years old but at a certain point they couldn’t do that anymore. They were running out of cells. That’s like the heart most of the time. You don’t have the cells you need. Maybe you could transplant cells in and restart the repair process. I began my work in the early ’90s and it grew from there.

Understanding that the heart is a muscle just like all the rest of our muscles, and that it didn’t have the cells present for repair, really opened a door for me in terms of understanding how our body repairs itself. For most of our lives, we have stem cells that repair most of our organs and tissues and we use those for most of our lives. As we get older, we no longer have as many and the ones that we have don’t function as well.

X: Why did you decide to come to the Texas Heart Institute last year?

DT: The Texas Heart institute has a long history in regenerative medicine, in either repairing or restoring cardiac function in patients with cardiac diseases. I worked with people at the Texas Heart for the last six years in an NIH research network.

Even though we all believe cell therapy is an important tool in the regenerative medicine arsenal, [there is] a large number of patients with congenital heart disease or with end-stage heart failure for whom cells are probably not going to be enough. So, can we begin to have a bigger solution? To date, we have done a huge amount of work in building artificial and mechanical hearts.

The vision that exists here, if you look at Denton Cooley, Bud Frazier, Billy Cohn, they’re all pioneers. They’ve all been able to realize their vision at THI. There are very few environments where you can do that these days. We have clinicians downstairs, scientists upstairs, patients here and at St. Luke’s where we can really understand what’s needed. The expertise, the level of excellence is what brought me here. And the fact that you really can innovate. It’s a very entrepreneurial community. You can try something important, potentially dangerous but also potentially world changing. You need people who aren’t afraid to dream big, and I’m surrounded by people who think that way every day. I feel like I did 20 years ago when we were having conversations about cell therapy for the first time. If we can imagine it, we can do it.

X: Tell me about the project with Texas A&M.

DT: If you think about it, the vast majority of work we do involves taking a therapy from preclinical studies in animal models of diseases to human studies. But now let’s take everything we learned in humans and make a difference in the non-human veterinary population. Everything we learned about doing cell therapy in humans, … Next Page »

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