Health Beat: Stem cells to the rescue: Fixing heart defects in children

Health Beat: Fixing heart defects in children

MIAMI - More than 35,000 babies are born with a heart defect. For many, this means a lifetime of surgery and medicine. Now, for the first time, doctors are using stem cells to save their smallest patients and hopefully keep them off medication and out of the operating room.

Analiah runs the Duarte home, literally.

"I try to walk with her and she's like, 'Leave me alone,'" said Johanna Duarte, Analiah's mom.

She was born with one of the most lethal and rare congenital heart defects. It's called Ebstein's anomaly. One of Analiah's heart valves failed to form.  

"They're left with this horrible, non-functional valve that allows blood to slosh back and forth inside their heart," said Dr. Redmond Paul Burke, chief in the division of pediatric cardiovascular surgery at Miami Children's Hospital.

Burke said it causes hearts to grow four, five or six times larger than normal.

"Analiah was born with a heart that filled her entire chest," Burke said.

Previously, surgeons would repair, replace, or close her valve, but that surgery would need to be done over and over as she grows.

"The holy grail for heart valve repair and replacement is a valve that will grow with the child," Burke said.

Doctors created the valve out of extracellular matrix, a substance extracted from a pig's bladder. The implant acts like a fishnet. It captures stem cells flowing in Analiah's blood stream. The cells attach to the impact, grow around it, and create a new heart valve.

"We could see, for the first time in her life, the valve that we had created opening and closing," Burke explained.

A year later, Analiah's valve is working. As a result, her heart is now a third of the original size.

Burke said Analiah's new valve should grow with her throughout her life; so she would not need a transplant, drugs or more surgery. He also believes this could be used in adults to replace heart valves.

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DOWNLOAD and VIEW the full-length interview with Dr. Redmond Paul Burke about fixing heat defects in children.

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