Statistics show that one in every three patients dies whilst waiting for a heart transplant. Although there is no shortage of hearts being donated to those in need, up to 80 per cent are unusable due to being damaged or too weak to transplant into the host body. Being stored on ice doesn’t help either, as this can damage the heart even further.
But things could be about to change. Doctor Darren Freed of the Mazankowski Institute has designed an ex-vivo (meaning an experiment that takes place outside of the body with minimum alteration of natural conditions) system to keep the heart pumping for up to six hours outside of the body. This therefore allows doctors to treat it with gene therapy before transplanting it into a patient. The technology is similar to what is currently used for lung transplants, yet the life-saving difference is that this new technology involves gene therapy.
A hormone called Adiponectin protects the heart from injury and increases function. The heart can produce this itself, by delivering a new genetic material through a harmless virus. This is washed away prior to being transplanted into the patient. A patient’s body is less likely to reject the new heart once it has been genetically engineered, and is less likely to fail.
At first, only unusable hearts will be used to practice on. Within the next three years, the team at the Mazankowski Institute will move on to transplanting live hearts into human bodies.