When someone has a heart attack, the cells in the affected area of the heart die off, and the damage can't be repaired. In the not-so-distant future, however, that may not be the case. Engineers from Rhode Island's Brown University, working with colleagues in India, have created a carbon nanofiber patch that has been shown to regenerate heart cells. It is hoped that such patches could eventually be placed on the heart, like a Band-Aid, to regrow dead areas.

The patch itself is 22 millimeters long, 15 microns thick, has a scaffold-like structure, and can expand and contract like heart tissue. It is made from a government-approved polymer and carbon nanofibers. The fibers are said to be excellent conductors of electrons, and so are able to transmit the electrical impulses that the heart uses in order to maintain a steady beat.

The Brown team laid the patch on a glass substrate, then seeded its nanofibers with heart cells known as cardiomyocytes. After four hours, five times as many cells had colonized the nanofiber patch, than a control patch that consisted of the polymer only. This figure rose to six times the cell density, after five days. Additionally, after four days, the density of neurons on the nanofiber patch had doubled.

According to the engineers, the elasticity of the scaffolding and the electrical qualities of the nanofibers are what makes it such an ideal spawning ground for the cardiomyocytes and neurons.

There is still work to be done, however. The team now wants to alter the pattern of the scaffolding in order to better mimic the heart's electrical current, along with placing a patch in a live subject to see how it handles the heart's voltage and beat regime. They also want to confirm that the cardiomyocytes which grow on the patch are able to function in the same ways as regular heart cells.

The research, which was conducted in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, was recently published in the journal Acta Biomaterialia.