Working together for a custom-made heart implant

13 April 2018

Improving patient outcomes through innovative solutions is crucial to advancing translational medical research, where multidisciplinary collaboration can provide the key to advancing new discoveries. 

A workshop hosted by the Westmead Institute for Medical Research earlier this week saw “rapid-fire” talks from clinicians, engineers and biomedical scientists to spark discussions between these groups to address unmet clinical needs. The workshop was sponsored by Sydney Health Partners, the ARC training centre for Innovative BioEngineering and the University of Sydney’s multidisciplinary Cardiovascular Initiative.

Clinicians highlighted the tools they need to best help their patients; while engineers, material scientists and medical scientists presented the expertise they had to offer.  The importance for those designing medical products to visit patients first-hand was also emphasised, as it allows them to be made aware of design features that may not be clinically essential, but can make a significant difference to the comfort and quality of life of the patient.   

Professor David Winlaw, researcher and clinician at the Heart Centre for Children was one of the speakers at the sessions on tissue engineering for cardiovascular challenges.  As the head of paediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, Professor Winlaw has a particular interest in improving patient outcomes in kids requiring or who have undergone heart surgery.

In many instances, children requiring surgery to repair underdeveloped or incorrect cardiac pathways rely on human donors or equivalent animal parts to form these connections.  While this approach has saved many lives, advances in technology now offer the opportunity to custom make these valved conduits, that is, the tubular implants where blood can only flow in one direction.

Professor Winlaw’s research in this area is an excellent example of the life-changing potential of precision medicine, where implant design could be automated to address each patient’s individual needs.  The custom-made implants would be designed to be:

  • capable of growing with the child and last a human lifetime
  • made of a biocompatible polymer that cells can grow onto
  • strong and flexible to withstand the forces of the cardiac pumping cycle
  • 3-D printable, so each implant could be designed and manufactured on-site, on-demand and in-line with the exact requirements of the individual

These properties overcome the main limitations of donor parts, which inevitably require surgical replacement due to deterioration, infection, hardening or because they are outgrown. The possibility that kids in the future may only need one operation to receive a life-saving and life-long implant is extremely exciting and would significantly improve outcomes for children with congenital heart disease.

Collaboration between clinicians like Professor Winlaw and engineering partners such as Professor Fariba Dehghani at the University of Sydney accelerate the discovery and translation of interventions such as this one, and it will be an essential next step in advancing toward the goal of personalised and functional implants to address structural heart disease.

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