Heart valve defects are a big problem today for some. If the heart’s valves don’t function properly, blood won’t flow correctly, and the heart’s rhythm may be disturbed as a result. As such, children with heart defects require multiple surgeries in their lifetime to ensure that the heart valves operate correctly and that they don’t "grow out" of the initial valves that were placed. Overall, current medicinal practices with regards to this field are still operating the way they were 10 years ago – but not any longer.
Stem cells are the key to most of the futuristic medicinal practices that doctors are currently dreaming up. Incidentally, stem cells are proving ever easier to work with – as long as enough of them are produced. Logic dictates that as long as the stem cells are collected from the same person that they’ll be re-used on, there should be no compatibility issues. That means that a healthy adult could have stem cells harvested from his own body to create a new liver, or in this case a new heart valve.
Science is still having a bit of a tough time determining exactly how to turn on the stem cells so that they differentiate into the appropriate structure – it seems now, however, that perhaps all that was missing was a "scaffolding" of sorts. German researchers were able to create a structure that very much resembled a heart valve. What it all comes down to is the fact that when you just put stem cells where you want them to differentiate, they typically don’t have a directive guiding them in that direction. However, once placed inside a scaffolding, it’s like opening the correct page in the instructions – the cells start differentiating to create that structure.
Such advances in the making of heart valves could cure a lot of problems in child heart valve transplants. By having a valve that is made from these stem cells, you are insuring that the valve will "grow up" along with the rest of the child, meaning that multiple surgeries will be a thing of the past.
The problem with all this magic is that it still is a long way from actual clinical practice – so far, it’s yet to be determiend whether or not the cells will differentiate and grow appropriately in the proper way and take the proper shape. Early trials are showing tremendous promise, but there’s no guarantee of what will happen in practice. The child could reject the valve (fairly uncommon, but still possible), or they could have wear and tear that’s very great, as currently, plastic and metal heart valves need to be replaced every so often.
The dawn of a new age in heart valve transplants could be just around the corner, but for now, we’ll just have to wait and see where this German research team will be able to take this new research.
Heart Valves Fashioned From Stem Cells in Umbilical Cord Blood
28 November 2008