Justin Webb on the medical advances in tackling heart disease
Last November I narrowly escaped having a massive heart attack. If it weren’t for the incredible advances that have been made in preventing heart attacks, I wouldn’t be here now.
Doctors at King’s College Hospital performed what proved to be lifesaving angioplasty to clear an almost completely blocked coronary artery. I was given a stent and I feel great, but so many others are not so lucky.
As I learnt while I toured a project funded by the British Heart Foundation at University College London, if I’d had that heart attack and survived, my heart would have been permanently and irreparably damaged. This damage can lead to a condition called heart failure. This isn’t where the heart just suddenly fails – as you might imagine – but fails to do its job properly. The weakened heart simply can’t pump blood as effectively around the body.
I met two dedicated and fascinating scientists at UCL – Dr Vassilis Georgiadis and Dr Suwan Jayasinghe. The former is a biologist and the latter, an engineer. Together with the lead scientist Dr Anastasis Stephanou, these guys are trying to achieve the unbelievable and manufacture new heart tissue that could repair damaged hearts.
Vassilis or Vass, as he’s known, first showed me around the lab where they culture stem cells, which can be turned into heart cells. There’s something almost magical about looking down a microscope and seeing these heart cells beating spontaneously, instinctively, in a dish. Cells that were not long ago not even heart cells at all.
Suwan then showed me his basement lab in an engineering building elsewhere on campus. Just past the wave machine for testing submarines, in his cramped room, he’s working on a technique called bioelectric spraying involving the heart cells the biologists make. Amidst a mass of gadgets and tech, he somehow finds space to do his valuable work.
The team hope to ‘spray’ heart cells, using Suwan’s technique, into patches of working tissue that can be put onto the damaged heart to restore some function. So far it seems to be working. Vass showed me how they test the patches of cells to make sure they’re properly conducting the electricity that’s needed for the heart muscle to beat and contract.
So much of medical research can seem so far off a reality for patients. But, meeting Suwan and Vass – hearing them talk so passionately about their science – I left the lab feeling like I had seen something that could play a part in one of the next incredible advances in cardiology, when doctors are able to literally mend broken hearts.
The British Heart Foundation has launched the Mending Broken Hearts appeal to find a cure for heart failure.
Tagged in: heart attack, heart disease
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