'Mini heart' may help people with blood flow problems

A researcher at George Washington University in Washington, DC, has made a startling innovation that could improve treatment for people who have impaired blood flow.

Narine Sarvazyan, PhD, has created a tiny heart that can be implanted to encourage blood flow in veins that lack working valves. This "mini heart" is a rhythmically contracting "cuff" of heart muscle cells that surrounds the problem vein and pumps blood through the vein as it palpitates.

Dr. Sarvazyan says that if the cuff is made of the patient's own stem cells, then this will also eliminate the possibility of this miniature organ being rejected.

She says:

"We are suggesting, for the first time, to use stem cells to create, rather than just repair damaged organs. We can make a new heart outside of one's own heart, and by placing it in the lower extremities, significantly improve venous blood flow."

Experts think Dr. Sarvazyan's mini heart could have useful applications in treating chronic venous insufficiency.

What is chronic venous insufficiency?

Chronic venous insufficiency is a long-term condition where the veins have difficulty sending blood from the legs back to the heart. When the condition is chronic, it is because a vein is either partly blocked or because blood is leaking around the valves of the veins.

People with chronic venous insufficiency may have varicose veins and ulcers on their legs and ankles, and the skin around these areas may be become hard and red. Treatments include having surgery to remove varicose veins - if the condition is causing skin sores and leg pain - and using compression stockings to decrease swelling.

This is one of the most widespread diseases in developed countries, where it can affect 20-30% of people over 50 years of age. In the US, chronic venous insufficiency consumes about 2% of health care costs.

Other conditions could also benefit from the mini heart innovation. "Sluggish" blood flow can be an issue for people with diabetes or people who are paralyzed or recovering from surgery.

In the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Dr. Sarvazyan outlines her success in demonstrating the mini heart in a laboratory setting and her plans to test the heart in a living organism.

The video below shows the mini heart in action:

Last month, similar research published in the journal Biomaterials investigated using adult stem cells to create human heart valves. These heart valves could potentially be used in children born with congenital heart defects. Once these valves are implanted, they would grow as the child grows. Currently, only artificial plastic valves are available, which requires the patient to endure multiple surgeries to have these replaced as they grow up.

In 2011, Medical News Today also reported on a study in PLOS One that found similarities between chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency and multiple sclerosis. In this variant of chronic venous insufficiency, the blood flow from the central nervous system is decreased, which can interrupt the flow of blood from the brain, causing injury to brain tissue.