Friday, March 7, 2014

Stem Cells & HLHS -- New Hope on the Horizon?

Dear Heart Friends:

I have some very exciting news to share with you! The Mayo Clinic has developed a clinical trial to determine if the use of stem cells in children born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) can help the heart to grow stronger -- perhaps preventing the need for transplant in the future (Mayo Clinic HLHS Stem Cell Trial)

This is very exciting news for moms who find out in utero that their baby will be born with this life-threatening heart defect. At the time of birth, the doctors would harvest blood from the umbilical cord, take the stem cells and culture them so that when the baby has the second staged surgery, they can inject those stem cells into the right ventricle to see if they will help the heart grow stronger. This would beef up the right ventricle to make it strong enough to support the life of the child for a very long time -- possibly preventing the need for transplant in the future.

The study is designed to have 10 babies actually test out using the stem cells to see if it's a feasible study and if it actually helps the babies' hearts to grow stronger. This is the first time the Food and Drug Administration has approved a study using stem cells in the pediatric population.

While I am very excited about this study, I can't help but wonder why these doctors wouldn't seed both sides of the heart to see what happens. I understand wanting to make the right side stronger, but if they could improve the pumping abilities of both sides of the heart, then perhaps these babies could develop two strong pumping chambers, thus eliminating the need for the Fontan Procedure. While having one really good, strong pumping chamber is an asset and might stave off the eventuality of having a heart transplant, having a four-chamber heart is far more ideal. The Fontan Procedure has saved many people -- including my own son -- so I don't discount the importance of this procedure for saving lives, but it's not a cure. It's a palliative (temporary fix) procedure and it comes with its own set of risks and long-term problems. The ideal situation would be to have a 4-chamber heart with all of the pumping chambers working properly.

This is a very exciting clinical trial and I will be watching to see what happens. I believe that studies such as this one have the opportunity not just to make a better Fontan heart, but to eliminate the diagnosis of HLHS forever. The day will come when doctors have the ability to re-engineer the human heart to repair the mistakes that happened in utero. Will it be with stem cells? Will it be a genetic reconfiguration? Or will it be some other way which we haven't even thought of before? The way we're going to get there isn't clear yet, but the one thing that is certain is that scientists are unlocking the mysteries of the human body and with it the ability to possibly help the body heal itself.

Please visit Baby Hearts Press at for resources for the congenital heart defect community.

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