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Improving life-saving surgery for tiny hearts

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Babies born with a heart defect can need complex surgery if they are to survive. Dr Emilie Sauvage is looking for ways to improve the design of ‘patches’ of specially engineered tissue which are often used to correct the shape of the heart or its vessels.

Around one in every four babies born with a heart defect has a type of problem called cyanotic heart disease. It means the heart cannot pump blood to the lungs properly and this can give the skin a blueish tinge, especially on the lips, fingers and toes.

Sadly these defects are usually life-threatening, requiring urgent, major surgery. During these operations surgeons often enlarge or reshape abnormal parts of the heart by adding a ‘patch’ of specially engineered tissue.

But even if surgery goes well, babies must keep seeing a heart specialist regularly as complications can develop later on – patches may become stiffer over time, or too small as the child grows, meaning further treatment is needed.

With a Research Training Fellowship of more than £155,000, Dr Emilie Sauvage aims to improve understanding of how implanted patches can affect the success of heart surgery.

Dr Sauvage is a biomechanical engineer, based at University College London. She is creating computer simulations of children’s hearts and using these to study how changes in patch design, such as shape, size and material, affect blood flow through the heart. She is also using the computer models to predict the effects of a child’s growth.

She says: “It could pave the way for the design of new, more personalised patches that perform better over time and cause fewer complications as children grow and develop.

“I hope to give doctors invaluable information on the best way to use these patches during heart surgery and give babies a better chance of doing well after their operation.”

Find out more about more new research here