'Spray-patch' could mend hearts
A 10,000 volt 3D electric sprayer, which fires out a stream of heart cells, could be the latest tool in mending broken hearts.
It can create thin sheets of beating cells that researchers hope they can use to patch-up pieces of damaged heart.
The need is huge. Heart attacks may no longer be a death sentence, but as more people survive them it means more are living with a damaged heart.
When a bit of heart muscle dies it is replaced by tough scars, just as it does after you cut your leg. But scar tissue does not beat, so it can leave the heart struggling to pump blood. In some cases it can make even the simplest of tasks as exhausting as running a marathon.
It is for this reason that British Heart Foundation researchers are trying to develop the patches. The thin sheets of heart cells could be layered onto the heart to help it beat or maybe even sprayed directly onto scar tissue inside the heart.
In a windowless laboratory in the heart of London a mechanical engineer, Dr Suwan Jayasinghe, has assembled the pieces of the bio-electric sprayer.
First a syringe is filled with heart cells. In the future it is thought these cells could be taken from a patient's heart and grown or a patient's stem cells could be converted into heart cells.
These are then passed through a needle. However, unlike a graffiti artist's spray can, this is not enough to get the thin accurate spray of cells needed to build the heart tissue.
Instead 10,000 volts going through the needle create an electric field to control the cells.
"You get the formation of a fine jet which then breaks up into a myriad of droplets and those droplets are what form the sheet," said Dr Jayasinghe.
"The beautiful thing is that we can add various other cell types into this cell suspension and create three dimensional cardiac tissues that are fully functional."
Under a microscope it is then possible to see the cells beating in the patch. The next test is to see if the patches can actually help a damaged heart to beat, by testing them in animals.
Researcher Dr Anastasis Stephanou said: "Hopefully we can show that these engineered cardiac sheets improve the function of a damaged heart.
"What we're hoping in the long term is to use this technology to actually repair the damaged heart so the patients wont have to wait long-term for a donor heart.
"A heart is made up of different cell types, so we would be able to design the technology where we would be able to place the right number of cell types to develop the actual cardiac tissue.
"So we feel the technology we have is quite superior in terms of the other cardiac tissue engineering technologies that are available."
Professor Peter Weissberg, medical director at the British Heart Foundation which funds the research, said: "Creating heart muscle is a huge challenge and involves a mix of different cells and blood vessels that need to line-up perfectly with one another.
"This groundbreaking research is trying to find a way to build 'pieces of the heart' outside the body. We hope that one day these pieces can be grafted onto damaged hearts to help them pump more strongly again.
"This research could offer hope to the 750,000 people living with heart failure in the UK."
Filming by Neil Bowdler, including video courtesy of Dr Vassilis Georgiadis, University College London.