‘Living drugs’ to repair damaged heart tissue

A heart attack treatment that could increase longevity and quality of life for New Zealanders with heart disease is the focus of new Heart Foundation funded research.

A new way of repairing damaged heart tissue with ‘living drugs’ could improve the length and quality of life for people who’ve had heart attacks.

Thousands of New Zealanders each year have heart attacks, often resulting in permanent heart damage. Currently there is no way to regenerate the dead muscle tissue and over time this can lead to heart failure and premature death.

One recent area of research has focused on ‘EV therapy’, a promising treatment similar to stem cell therapy. However, instead of using stem cells, EV therapy uses tiny particles, called nanoparticles, that are naturally produced in the body to regenerate dead heart tissue.

Now the University of Otago’s Dr Xiaolin (Steven) Cui has received a three-year Heart Foundation Research Fellowship to investigate a new way of delivering these nanoparticles, called extracellular vesicles (EVs), into the heart.

It is part of a large multi-national research project which involves bioengineers, polymer chemists, stem cell biologist, cardiac physiologists, and cardiologists working in New Zealand, China, Australia and the United States.

Gel patch to give treatment

“Currently there’s no really practical way to administer EVs,” Steven explains. “If you want to target delivery to the heart you have to do open chest surgery. Another way is to inject through the vein, but that reduces the effectiveness of the EVs on the heart. In addition, they also sometimes go to other organs, which makes them less beneficial. So, we are developing a very targeted delivery approach.”

This innovative approach is to inject a liquid containing the EVs into the lining around the heart using a thin tube, called a catheter. Light will be shone onto the liquid, which then forms a gel patch on the surface of the damaged heart tissue. The EVs will then be released from the patch and help the damaged tissue regenerate.

“If it’s successful, this treatment could be given to people following a heart attack to stop them getting heart failure and result in longer lifetimes and better quality of life,” says Steven. “We have conducted some early research, showing great benefit.”

Background in stem cell therapy

Dr Steven Cui

Steven is thankful for the Heart Foundation support which he describes as an integral to quality cardiac research.

He became interested in EV therapy after earlier research into stem cell therapy at the University of Adelaide in Australia and the North Carolina State University in the United States.

“My background was in stem cells,” he explains. “However, there are some very strict rules around using that treatment. So, I started instead to look at what makes stem cell therapy work and that’s when I moved into EVs. Gradually we are starting to realise the importance of EVs.”

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