Tel Aviv University’s cyborg cardiac patch could replace transplants

Researchers are currently examining how his proof of concept could apply to the brain and spinal cord to treat neurological conditions.

March 15, 2016 01:38
2 minute read.
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Israeli doctors perform heart surgery on a baby from Gaza, at Wolfson Hospital near Tel Aviv . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Electronics melded with living tissues have been used by Tel Aviv University researchers to create a self-regulating “cyborg cardiac patch” to save lives of people with diseased hearts. Their study has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature Materials.

With the number of donor hearts for transplants very limited around the world, more than a quarter of Americans on the national waiting list for a heart will die before receiving one. But now there seems to be an alternative.

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The new patch, invented by Prof. Tal Dvir and doctoral student Ron Feiner of TAU’s Biotechnology Department, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and its Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology may singlehandedly change the field of cardiac research, they said.

The capabilities of the bionic heart patch even surpass those of human tissue alone, they said, as it contracts and expands like human heart tissue but regulates itself like a machine.

“With this heart patch, we have integrated electronics and living tissue,” said Dvir.

“It seems like science fiction, but it’s already here, and we expect it to move cardiac research forward in a big way. Until now, we could engineer organic cardiac tissue with only mixed results. Now we have produced viable bionic tissue that ensures that heart tissue will function properly.”

But it will take time.

“This is a breakthrough, to be sure,” he said, “but I would not suggest binging on hamburgers or quitting sports just yet. The practical realization of the technology may take some time. Meanwhile, a healthy lifestyle is still the best way to keep your heart healthy.”

Dvir’s lab has been at the forefront of cardiac research for the last five years, harnessing sophisticated nanotechnological tools to develop functional substitutes for tissue permanently damaged by heart attacks and cardiac disease. The new cyborg cardiac patch not only replaces organic tissue but also ensures its sound functioning through remote monitoring.

“We first ensured that the cells would contract in the patch, which explains the need for organic material,” said Dvir. “But, just as importantly, we needed to verify what was happening in the patch and regulate its function.

We also wanted to be able to release drugs from the patch directly onto the heart to improve its integration with the host body.”

For the new bionic patch, the team has engineered thick bionic tissue suitable for transplantation.

The engineered tissue features electronics that sense tissue function and accordingly provide electrical stimulation. In addition, electro-active polymers are integrated with the electronics.

Upon activation, these polymers are able to release medication, such as growth factors or small molecules on demand.

“Imagine that a patient is just sitting at home and not feeling well,” he said.

“His physician will be able to log onto his computer and this patient’s file in real time.

He can view data sent remotely from sensors embedded in the engineered tissue and assess exactly how his patient is doing. He can intervene to properly pace the heart and activate drugs to regenerate tissue from afar.

“The longer-term goal is for the cardiac patch to be able to regulate its own welfare: If it senses inflammation, it will release an anti-inflammatory drug. If it senses a lack of oxygen, it will release molecules that recruit blood-vessel- forming cells to the heart.”

Researchers are currently examining how his proof of concept could apply to the brain and spinal cord to treat neurological conditions.

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