An engineered cardiac patch has been created that incorporates human cells with flexible electronics and a nanocomposite structure to not only replace damaged heart tissue, but also provide remote monitoring, electrical stimulation, and the release of medication on demand. Using electroactive polymers and a combination of biological and engineered parts, the patch contracts and expands just like normal human heart tissue, but regulates those actions with the precision of a finely-tuned machine.
Invented by Professor Tal Dvir and PhD student Ron Feiner of Tel Aviv University (TAU), this new breakthrough medical device is claimed by its creators to have capabilities that surpass those of human tissue alone. As such, this patch may give new hope to people such as those 25 percent on the US national waiting list that may die before a suitable transplant heart becomes available, by effectively offering a way to fix – rather than replace – their own heart.
While a veritable horde of artificial and artificially-grown hearts are on the medical horizon (such as a silicone foam version from Cornell University and Berkeley's heart grown on a chip), the wait for such things to be fully developed and come to market doesn't help those facing the prospect of dying in the near future. This is the area where the TAU creation may prove to be the most valuable.
As a patch to be applied to a heart damaged by trauma, such as where an infarct (a small localized area of dead tissue resulting from failure of blood supply) occurs, this cyborg amalgam of living cells and electronic components not only replaces organic tissue, but also enables the sound functioning of the heart via remote monitoring.
"With this heart patch, we have integrated electronics and living tissue," said Professor Dvir. "It's very science fiction, but it's already here, and we expect it to move cardiac research forward in a big way. Until now, we could only engineer organic cardiac tissue, with mixed results. Now we have produced viable bionic tissue, which ensures that the heart tissue will function properly."
Reported to have been on the front line of cardiac research for the past five years, Professor Dvir's Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Lab has used advanced nanotechnology tools to create fully-functional surrogate tissue to replace that irreparably damaged by heart attack or cardiac disease. With the latest iteration, in-built remote monitoring electronics promise to greatly enhance such tissue replacement.
"Imagine that a patient is just sitting at home, not feeling well," Professor Divr said. "His physician will be able to log onto his computer and this patient's file – in real time. He can view data sent remotely from sensors embedded in the engineered tissue and assess exactly how his patient is doing. He can intervene to properly pace the heart and activate drugs to regenerate tissue from afar."
Currently investigating ideas on similar cyborg replacements for areas of the brain and the spinal column damaged by neurological conditions, Provessor Dvir and his team hope to progress the heart patch to the point that the integration of more advanced electronics embedded within the device will one day allow completely automatic control and regulation of cardiac function.
"The longer-term goal is for the cardiac patch to be able to regulate its own welfare," revealed the professor. "In other words, if it senses inflammation, it will release an anti-inflammatory drug. If it senses a lack of oxygen, it will release molecules that recruit blood-vessel-forming cells to the heart."
The results of this research were recently published in the journal Nature Materials.