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Synthetic Beating Heart Repair Tissue Being Developed

George Pins holding patch

George Pins holds a patch woven from biopolymer microthreads. (Worcester Polytechnic Institute)

1 August 2017. A bioengineering team is developing a synthetic patch that contracts and sends electrical signals to repair heart muscle tissue after a heart attack. The three-year project at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is funded by a $452,000 grant from National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of National Institutes of Health.

Worcester Tech researchers, led by biomedical engineering professor George Pins, are seeking to improve on current methods for regenerating heart muscle tissue. Today’s techniques, say the investigators, rely on an inert scaffold seeded with stem cells to grow new heart muscle, which does not regenerate on its own. While this approach offers structural support for growing new muscle, the replacement tissue does not completely integrate with original heart muscle.

The university cites data from American Heart Association showing some 500,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with cardiovascular diseases each year. Heart attacks, known formally as myocardial infarctions, occur when blood flow to the heart is blocked, in many cases from build up of fat or cholesterol plaques in the arteries. The life-threatening condition often results in damage to heart muscle, leaving scar tissue that stiffens, reducing the muscle’s ability to contract and pump blood through the body.

Pins and colleagues are developing replacement tissue to patch over damaged heart muscle for people suffering a heart attack. Unlike current synthetic tissue patches, the new replacement tissue will be designed to be more bioactive and integrate better with an individual’s host heart muscle, contract like original heart muscle, and conduct electrical signals controlling heart rhythms.

The new patch will build on work by Pins and others on creating fine micro-scale fibers from fibrin, a protein in blood that activates when bleeding occurs and is instrumental in forming clots to help stop bleeding. Pins earlier produced microfibers made from fibrin and biocompatible polymers for repairing damaged knee ligaments, and as reported in Science & Enterprise in 2013, studied the use of these fibers in scaffolding for supporting stem cells to regenerate heart muscle.

In the new project, the Worcester Tech team is creating a repair patch with sheets of 3-D printed microfibers in hydrogel as the framework. The researchers will seed this fame with induced pluripotent stem cells, engineered to produce precursor heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes expected to form into heart muscle that contract like original heart tissue. In addition, the team plans to align the fibers to enable the synthetic tissue to conduct electrical signals.

While the researchers already studied various elements of a synthetic heart repair patch, the new project expects to put all the pieces together. The goal is is to produce 1 centimeter square patches with a thickness of 0.3 millimeters, that can contract and conduct electrical signals like real heart muscle. The team expects to test different thicknesses of microfibers and packing densities of stem cells, while assessing various strategies for aligning and cross-linking the microfibers to maximize their signaling ability.

Pins and Glenn Gaudette, a biomedical engineering professor at Worcester Tech and co-investigator on the project, founded the company VitaThreads LLC in 2012 to commercialize their research on fibrin microfibers for wound healing and suturing. VitaThreads received Small Business Innovation Research grants from National Science Foundation and NIH in 2013 and 2015 respectively, but the company needed to revise its business plans over the years, an odyssey reported by Worcester Tech.

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