Spring 2017

Small tube, big implications

Robert Tranquillo (left) and Zeeshan Syedain are developing tissue-engineered heart valves that could grow with children.
Photography by GLEN STUBBE ©2013 STAR TRIBUNE

In a groundbreaking study, University of Minnesota researchers found that artificial blood vessels bioengineered in the lab can grow when implanted in a recipient—a finding that could one day prevent the need for repeated surgeries in some children with congenital heart defects. 

Distinguished McKnight University Professor Robert Tranquillo and colleague Zeeshan Syedain generated vessel-like tubes in the lab from a donor’s skin cells, then removed the cells to minimize the chance of rejection. When implanted in lambs, the tubes were repopulated by the lambs’ own cells, allowing the vessels to grow. 

 “This is the perfect marriage between tissue engineering and regenerative medicine where tissue is grown in the lab and then, after implanting the  decellularized tissue, the natural processes of the recipient’s body make it a living tissue again,” Tranquillo says.

The team is now developing tissue-engineered heart valves that could grow with children who need valve replacements. Tranquillo, whose work is supported in part by the John and Nancy Lindahl Children’s Heart Research Innovators Fund, won a grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund these efforts.

“In the future, this could mean one surgery instead of five or more surgeries that some children with heart defects have before adulthood,” Tranquillo says.