At a certain point we looked at each other and said: "Do we realise that we are trying to make Iron Man?" He is a superhero who uses a special technology to help him stay alive because his heart has suffered some damage.
An ambitious study is trying to restore the neural connections that are lost during heart transplants, thus improving the life expectancy of patients
The world’s first human-to-human heart transplant is dated 3 December 1967, operated by the surgeon Christiaan Barnard in Cape Town, South Africa, on patient Louis Washkansky.
Fifty-two years later an international team of researchers is trying to revolutionise this medical field, offering a hi-tech solution to tackle the dangerous side effects for patients.
Guido Giudetti, a biologist specialising in neurobiology at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, explains: “In this neuroengineering project we want to take a transplanted heart and restore its lost neural connections. This is very important, since the nerves that connect the heart to the brain regulate the pulse.”
“The control nerve is called vagus. When active, it has the function of slowing the heartbeat. Nowadays, a patient who has had a conventional transplant is like a driver in a car which is stuck at 110 km/h. Their heart pulse remains the same whether they are sleeping, walking or doing physical activity. In the long run this situation leads to lower quality of life as the fast-beating, uncontrollable heart eventually gets tired.”
The project is called NeuHeart, and is supported by the EU programme Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). Giudetti admits: “We are trying to do something that no one has ever tried to do. That’s why we say that it is a ‘moon shot’. At a certain point we looked at each other and said: ‘Do we realise that we are trying to make Iron Man?’ He is a superhero who uses a special technology to help him stay alive because his heart has suffered some damage.”
The solution studied by the researchers is a smart neuroprosthesis that will electronically control the denervated heart, through a regenerative neural interface and sensors.
Giudetti concludes: “The FET programme has given us the confidence to carry out a high-risk/high-gain research. The anatomy of the vagus nerve itself is not well known, and this is something that we will study specifically in this project. We may not achieve our aim, but firstly we will have developed technologies, and secondly, if the research is successful, we will literally change the paradigm of heart transplants.”
Click here to watch the interview in Italian.