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New 3D-printed heart valves could save children's lives: Montreal researchers

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Researchers at the Sainte-Justine Hospital are testing what might be a major breakthrough in helping children with heart defects.

They’re using a 3D printer to make heart valves and in about an hour, the machine will reproduce something so precious. It has the potential to add years to a life and it's roughly the size of a raspberry.

"I really believe this is really promising," said PhD student Arman Jafari, who has found a new way to make heart valves with Sainte-Justine Hospital principal investigator Houman Savoji.

Using hydrogels — known for being compatible with tissue generation — the valve is produced in a 3D printer. Stem cells could then be harvested from the patient, put on the valve, and grown in a bioreactor before being implanted into the patient.

"So everything is personalized. We call it personalized medicine," said Savoji.

Currently, a damaged heart valve is replaced with one from an animal heart or mechanical valve but that comes with risks.

"When you have the mechanical heart valve, it might work for 10 years, or 20 years, but for that whole time you have to take anti-coagulation drugs, which can cause serious complications," said Jafari.

Another issue with traditional valve replacements is they don’t grow with the patient so multiple surgeries could be required.

"If you implant such a valve, you mostly know this will not last a lifetime, this will not be incorporated into the body," said Dr. Gregor Andelfinger, a pediatric cardiologist.

What’s exciting about the new technology is that it’s using the patient’s own cells. Early tests show there’s less chance of rejection and the hope is the valve will grow with the patient.

"The cells start remodelling or making their own structure and then this material disappears during time. And then the cells make their own structure and support and then they grow with the patient," Savoji said.

The next step is experimenting on animals and human trials could begin in about a decade. If it works, it could offer new hope to adults and children with heart disease.

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