Heart muscle-cell gel can treat cardiac damage, maybe carry drugs

Scientists at the University of California-San Diego have concocted a recipe for a powerful and potentially quite versatile substance. Their injectable gel showed promise in pigs and rats as a heart attack treatment, helping to preserve cells and promote repairs, and human trials could begin within the next year. The gel could also potentially carry drugs into the body.

It's both a potential treatment and drug delivery vehicle. Cool, right?

For the long version, read the Feb. 21 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Before that, however, consider the recipe (don't try this at home):

1. Take cardiac connective tissue, cleanse it of any heart muscle cells, freeze dry and then mill the substance into powder.
2. Liquefy the substance into a fluid easily injected into the heart. 
3. Inject.
4. Let body temperature morph the substance into the semiporous gel mentioned above. Give the gel time to become scaffolding that helps repair and regenerate damaged tissue, and maybe even help stop further decay. 

Bioengineering professor Karen Christman (from the university's Jacobs School of Engineering) led the research. Her team found that they can inject the substance through a catheter and also that it helped improve heart function in pigs (in unpublished research) without the need for surgery or general anesthesia. That's crucial to consider if they prove that the treatment is viable in people, because quick treatment with minimal work is vital to prevent permanent heart damage, or death, in the minutes after a heart attack. They also proved that rats could take the substance without rejecting it and that it appeared safe to use.

The research is so promising that Christman co-founded a company around it, dubbed Ventrix, with human trials expected within the next 12 months. At first, they'll pursue U.S. regulatory approval for the substance as a biologic, although Christman noted in an email interview with FierceBiotechResearch that "all other extracellular matrix based products are devices." Along those lines, they envision pursuing device approval in Europe.

Christman also acknowledged to us her product's unique versatility. But drug delivery options aren't first on the list.

"It has the potential to be a delivery device for therapeutics or cells," she said. "But our main focus is on it as a therapy by itself, given our excellent results with the hydrogel alone."

- here's the release
- read the journal abstract