Heart Valves That Grow With The Patient

The “decellularised and re-colonised pulmonary valves” developed by heart surgeon Professor Axel Haverich and his team provide child patients with significantly improved chances of survival and a better quality of life. The mechanical heart valves normally used have the disadvantage that they require lifelong blood thinning treatment and are susceptible to infections. The biological heart valves from pigs or cows used as an alternative are again only of limited durability. Children with heart valve defects therefore normally have to undergo multiple operations – with all the physical and psychological pressures and risks this entails.

Haverich and his colleagues, on the other hand, use heart valves that are "grown" from the young patient's natural body cells. To do this, a valve from a human or animal donor is removed of all cells using tissue engineering, so that only its outer framework remains. This valve matrix is then colonised with cells that have been obtained from the blood of the recipient and propagated. Within a few weeks, a quasi-natural heart valve then emerges in this bioreactor that exhibits no rejection response or other faults, but instead grows with the patient after the implantation.

The foundation for this innovation in medicine and medical technology was laid in 1995. In that year the then 42-year old Haverich was honoured with the Leibniz Prize for his scientific work in the area of transplant medicine. One year later Haverich used the prize money of three million German marks at that time to found the Leibniz Research Laboratories for Biotechnology and Artificial Organs (LEBAO).

The first major project of the new establishment was the development of “grown” heart valves. After six years of development work and experiments on small and large animals, in May 2002 Haverich was able to implant the first decellularised and re-colonised heart valves into two children of nine and ten years of age. Since then 16 children have been successfully operated on. The first two patients have now been living with their new cardiac valves for over six years – free of illness and comparable with healthy children in terms of their physical development.

COMPAMED.de; Source: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)