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Advancing pioneering heart disease research

A fibrin patch made in the lab of Jianyi Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., may help improve the effectiveness of stem cell therapies for the heart. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

Specially engineered patches may help repair damage done by disease

“Everyone has some kind of tie to a person with heart disease,” says Brian Engdahl, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, whose own father died of heart failure in 2005 at age 81.

Each year, more than 17 million people die of heart disease. A third of all deaths in the United States can be attributed to cardiovascular problems, and the No. 1 cause of hospitalization in America is heart failure.

Intent on improving those statistics, Engdahl and his family established a Stem Cell Heart Repair Research Fund at the University of Minnesota in 2008, and they have recently made a $2 million commitment to establish an endowed chair in regenerative therapy for heart disease through the Engdahl Family Foundation.

“There’s a huge need in this area,” says Daniel Garry, M.D., Ph.D., director of the U’s Lillehei Heart Institute. “And stem cell therapy and biomedical engineering are some of the two most promising avenues of research. Ultimately, one goal of the University is to cure heart disease. We hope this chair will allow us to take a big step forward in that effort.”

For decades, the University has been a global leader in heart-health research and treatment. The heart institute’s namesake, C. Walton Lillehei, M.D., Ph.D., performed many “world firsts” in open-heart surgery in the 1950s. What’s more, the study and treatment of heart disease have been revolutionized by Jay Cohn, M.D., who joined the U faculty in 1974 and initiated the first long-term clinical trials in heart failure. And more recently, U researchers have begun to explore the use of stem cell technology to develop therapies for heart disease.

Jianyi Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine and biomedical engineering and director of two cardiology labs, for example, is investigating the potential use of fibrin patches to introduce stem cells into the body. Attached to the heart, such patches could release stem cells over a period of time, stimulating growth that could counteract the damage done by heart disease. Especially intriguing is the concept of reprogramming a person’s skin cells to form heart cells, creating new organ tissue.

“It’s really a form of personalized medicine,” Garry says. “Cell therapy can take off-the-shelf cells and deliver those to a failing heart.” The patches provide a delivery system for the novel treatment. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid around the heart that delivers the necessary therapy.”

Engdahl, who is also a research professor of cognitive sciences at the University, describes the Lillehei Heart Institute as “an amazing organization.” His father, an accountant, saw the potential for wearable pacemakers a half-century ago and invested in the work of Medtronic founders Earl Bakken and Palmer Hermundslie. That investment paid off for the Engdahls.

“In a very real sense, we owe our ability to support this work to Medtronic,” Engdahl says.

Such support is critical today because government funding of scientific and medical research has reached a new low, Garry says. “This is the worst funding environment I’ve ever seen for high-risk but high-reward research.”

Endowed chairs, like the one funded by the Engdahls, help add stability to research by providing financial continuity. “[They] raise the prestige of the entire institution,” Garry says.

Brian Engdahl sees the chair as a way to ensure that the U’s work on heart disease continues in perpetuity—or until a cure is found. “I hope the gift helps retain a truly innovative researcher who builds a lab that attracts and educates other pioneering researchers. It’s multiplicative.”

By Joel Hoekstra

To learn more about advancing cardiovascular research at the University of Minnesota, contact Amanda Storm Schuster at 612-626-2475 or

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