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Once heart tissue dies in a heart attack, it’s gone for good: unlike some other organs, the heart can’t repair its own muscle tissue. That leaves many heart attack victims with scar tissue that causes heart failure—a heart that can’t pump enough blood. Now, researchers at Duke University have developed a new kind of “heart patch” that may one day restore lost heart function.

Heart trouble is a common complication of diabetes.

The patch is made with stem cells that form lab-grown tissue that does everything normal heart tissue does. It’s hailed as a breakthrough because it’s much larger than earlier heart patches. At about two and a half square inches, it’s the first patch big enough to cover the area typically damaged in a heart attack.

"Creating individual cardiac muscle cells is pretty commonplace, but people have been focused on growing miniature tissues for drug development," said Nenad Bursac, professor of biomedical engineering at Duke, in a news release. "Scaling it up to this size is something that has never been done, and it required a lot of engineering ingenuity."

The patch could be surgically implanted over dead heart tissue, where it would provide more strength for heart contractions and conduct the heart’s electrical signals smoothly. Tests show the patch’s electrical, mechanical, and structural properties are similar to a healthy adult heart.

More research is needed

The patch has already proven itself in animal tests. Before it’s ready for people, two major hurdles remain. The current patch is only a few cells thick—far too thin to help a human heart. To make it thicker, researchers have to find a way to add more blood vessels that can nourish inner layers of cells. The second challenge is to fully integrate the heart patch with the heart’s muscle tissue.

"Full integration like that is really important, not just to improve the heart's mechanical pumping, but to ensure the smooth spread of electrical waves and minimize the risk of arrhythmias," said Ilia Shadrin, a biomedical engineering doctoral student at Duke who is the first author of the study.

"We are actively working on that, as are others, but for now, we are thrilled to have the 'size matters' part figured out," added Bursac.

Have you been diagnosed with heart failure? Add a comment below to tell us about your treatments and whether you’d be willing to use this heart patch.