New effort in biomedical engineering may improve heart repair
Jianyi "Jay" Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., brought his biomedical engineering expertise to the University of Alabama at Birmingham to fix hearts. His dream -- and the dream of other heart experts at major research universities around the world -- is creating new tissue that can replace or protect damaged muscle after a heart attack. Zhang already took a major step toward that goal when he and colleagues protected pigs from post-heart attack heart failure. As described in his 2014 Cell Stem Cell paper, the researchers placed a mat of fibrin over the area where muscle had died and injected three types of cardiovascular cells underneath the mat. This is somewhat akin to starting new lawn by scattering grass seeds beneath a protective layer of hay. The fibrin helped some of the injected cells survive and grow, and they in turn protected the heart from further damage. While Zhang's colleague at the University of Paris Descartes, Philippe Menasche, M.D., Ph.D., is currently testing this approach on five patients, Zhang is launching a new effort in biomedical engineering to improve heart repair, supported by a new $3 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH. Instead of injecting individual cells and hoping they take seed, Zhang plans to robotically build and grow a mat of heart tissue made from individual cells, using a custom 3-D printer. Surgeons will then place this custom mat of living cells over the dead, infarcted tissue of the heart, somewhat akin to starting a new lawn by laying sod. "We will make our own printer, using machinery experts, robotic experts and computer science experts," said Zhang, who last fall became the new leader of UAB Biomedical Engineering, a joint department of the UAB School of Medicine and School of Engineering. "A robotic arm will pick up cells of various types from petri dishes and place them onto fine needles that are a few microns apart. The growing cells fuse after three to seven days, and the shape is based on the needles." "Then we can lift off the tissue," Zhang said. "It is scaffold-less tissue engineering. I already have two Ph.D. students on the project."