The Times-Tribune

Testing stem cells in tiniest hearts

Doctors’ effort tries to fight birth defect

- BY LAURAN NEERGAARD

BALTIMORE — The 4-month-old on the operating table has a shocking birth defect, nearly half his heart is too small or even missing. To save him, surgeons will have to totally reroute how his blood flows, a drastic treatment that doesn’t always work.

So this time they are going a step further. In a bold experiment, doctors injected donated stem cells directly into the healthy side of Josue Salinas Salgado’s little heart, aiming to boost its pumping power as it compensate­s for what’s missing.

It’s one of the first attempts in the U.S. to test if stem cells that seem to help heart attack survivors repair cardiac muscle might help these tiniest heart patients, too.

“We think the young heart is able to be more responsive,” said Dr. Sunjay Kaushal, chief of pediatric cardiac surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who is leading the study in partnershi­p with University of Miami researcher­s.

Dr. Kaushal bent over the baby’s right ventricle, the part of the heart that will take over for the abnormal left side. The surgeon had repaired as much as possible for now. Next he measured where to place eight shots of precious stem cells.

Then the bustling operating room went silent as Dr. Kaushal helped fellow surgeon Dr. Si M. Pham guide tiny needles into the ventricle’s muscle.

“We’re not saying we’re going to cure it,” Dr. Kaushal said of the birth defect, called hypoplasti­c left heart syndrome. But, “my whole quest is to see if we can make these little kids do better.”

Other types of stem cells also are being explored for hypoplasti­c left heart syndrome. Mayo Clinic researcher­s have tested stem cells taken from affected babies’ umbilical cord blood. Dr. Kaushal also plans to try stem cells from affected newborns’ own heart tissue, something researcher­s in Japan are pursuing.

It will take several years to know if stem cell experiment­s work. But, like many babies after their second surgery for the heart defect, Josue bounced back — and a week later, finally got to go home.

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