For the first time, doctors treated a baby's heart defect with injected stem cells

The research team is now working to help more kids.
Nergis Firtina
Team of surgeons operating on patient in hospital.
Team of surgeons operating on patient in hospital.

JohnnyGreig/iStock 

Baby Finley was born with congenital heart disease two years ago. Finley was the first person on record who had received an injection of stem cells to patch his heart after surgery, thanks to Professor Massimo Caputo and his team from the University of Bristol. Now, Professor Caputo and his team are working to help more kids with the same condition as Finley, according to a press release published by the British Health Foundation.

As LiveScience reported, Finley underwent open heart surgery four days after her birth to have the arteries repositioned where they should be. After the 12-hour procedure, complications occurred, and as Finley's heart function deteriorated, he required continued care in an intensive care unit. After receiving this treatment for several weeks, Professor Caputo gave Finley's parents another choice to think about: an injection of stem cells that would be given directly to the heart.

Stem cell plaster

Professor Caputo has been carrying out many research projects and clinical trials since 2003 for better heart surgery. He was curious as to whether therapeutic hypothermia—body cooling during cardiac surgery—improved outcomes.

He also developed stem cell plaster or patches containing donated stem cells that can be sewn into the heart during surgery. Unlike standard synthetic patches or replacement heart valves, in theory, these patches won't need to be replaced every so often as a child gets bigger. The researchers said the plasters could help reduce or eliminate the need for children to undergo repeat open-heart surgeries. 

Instead of receiving stem cells as part of a clinical experiment, Finley received them "on compassionate grounds." He also did not receive the plaster that Caputo is now creating. Instead, during his second open-heart surgery, he was given a stem cell injection.

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For the first time, doctors treated a baby's heart defect with injected stem cells
Professor Massimo Caputo.

Recovering blue babies

Professor Caputo's work includes repairing the hearts of babies who were deprived of oxygen at birth.

"We also did a study looking at 'blue babies' [who are suffering from low oxygen levels] during heart surgery and found that giving them high oxygen levels in this type of surgery can actually damage the heart and brain. Before this, we had been giving high oxygen levels to these patients, so it was important to discover this," Professor Caputo said in the press release.

"Within two weeks of the stem cell treatment, we noticed a change in Finley. He came home for the first time when he was just six months old on a machine that still helps him breathe at night," Finley's mother told LiveScience. "We don't know what the future brings, but we are so grateful for Finley's life to be turned around after the stem cell treatment as he now has a chance at life he might not have had otherwise."