Wired.uk recently reported that a team of researchers at the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute at the University of Louisville believe it will be possible to 3-D an entire human heart from a patient’s own stem cells in a decade.
The team, led by Stuart K Williams, has already made some progress recreating parts of a human heart such as a coronary artery and some of the microscopic blood vessels that help with circulation within the heart. These techniques likely will be available to repair damaged hearts even before it is possible to print an entire heart for transplant.
Heart transplants, first accomplished in the 1960s by South African surgeon Christian Barnard and refined by American surgeons Michael Debakey and Denton Cooley, are invariably a last resort for heart patients for whom medications or less risky surgeries have proven to be ineffective.
Even so, because most transplants are done for the elderly, not everyone is a candidate for a new heart. Other conditions that would cause one to die or have one’s life shortened. Problems with rejection of what is, after all, foreign tissue require the use of powerful drugs for the rest of a patient’s life. And, because of the shortage of donor organs, not everyone who can be helped by a heart transplant gets one.
Being able to grow a human heart for anyone would be as great an advance in medical science since the original heart transplant. Everyone who needs a new heart would be able to get one. The way that it would work is that a patient’s own cells, likely fat cells, would be extracted and in a solution that will encourage them to grow into heart tissue. Then the cells would be used in a bioprinter to build a new heart that would then be implanted in the patient.
Since the new heart is the genetic copy of the old heart, there would be no need for anti rejection drugs. It will be, for someone suffering from heart disease, as if their old heart suddenly became young and strong again. The implications for treating coronary disease are profound.