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Continuing a proud legacy: Members of the Lillehei Heart Institute build on a tradition of innovation that began more than five decades ago

University of Minnesota investigators were hard at work more than 50 years ago inventing devices and perfecting procedures that would eventually evolve into today’s heart treatment mainstays.

University surgeons pioneered several world firsts in the 1950s.

In 1952‚ for example‚ F. John Lewis‚ M.D.‚ Ph.D.‚ performed the world’s first successful open-heart surgery‚ which used hypothermia. Two years later‚ C.Walton Lillehei‚ M.D.‚ Ph.D.‚ led the world’s first successful open-heart surgery using cross-circulation. In 1957 Lillehei worked with inventor Earl Bakken to create a portable battery-powered pacemaker‚ which served as the foundation for the Medtronic‚ Inc.‚ pacemaker that keeps millions of hearts beating today.

And 30 years ago‚ University surgeons performed Minnesota’s first heart transplant. Shortly thereafter‚ physicians here developed the first new therapy to slow the progression of heart disease.

Steeped in a legacy of innovations and “firsts‚” University physicians and researchers are building on their history and discovering new ways to care for people’s ailing hearts and even stave off cardiovascular disease altogether.

With a generous gift from Katherine Lillehei in 1999‚ the University established the Lillehei Heart Institute (LHI)‚ an interdisciplinary coalition of scientists and physicians who collaborate on cardiovascular research and share core resources to accelerate the translation of laboratory findings to better patient care.

Today more than 130 LHI members are combatting cardiovascular disease from several angles‚ using cell-based therapies‚ genomics‚ and the body’s own signaling mechanisms to detect disease earlier and treat it.

“These areas are really the future of heart disease treatment and prevention‚” says Daniel Garry‚ M.D.‚ Ph.D.‚ executive director of the LHI and director of the Division of Cardiology in the University’s Department of Medicine.

Testing ‘crazy ideas’

In one mind-boggling breakthrough in January‚ Doris Taylor, Ph.D., and her team removed all the cells from a cadaver rat heart using a process known as decellularization—leaving only the scaffolding that Taylor calls the “extracellular matrix.” Then the team repopulated the scaffolding with the healthy heart cells of a newborn rat‚ and in just over a week‚ the once-defunct heart was again beating on its own.

Taylor’s team has since transplanted the heart into the abdomen of a rat to show it could live and survive. And it has.

The team also has successfully decellularized and reanimated a pig heart and kidney‚ demonstrating that the process works in larger animals and with other organs.

“If you’re going to try to change the way we treat heart disease‚ it’s critical to be in an environment where you can try new‚ crazy ideas‚” says Taylor‚ who directs the University’s Center for Cardiovascular Repair and holds the Bakken Medtronic Chair in Cardiovascular Repair. “Because others have allowed us to try these crazy ideas‚ we believe that we’ve opened a new door in the field of organ transplantation.”

If you're going to try to change the war we treat heart disease, it's critical to be in an environment where you can try new, crazy ideas. - Doris Taylor, Ph.D.

Predicting—and preventing—disease

While Taylor explores ways to repair damaged organs and build new ones‚ her LHI colleagues across campus are working to prevent damage to the heart altogether.

At the Rasmussen Center for Cardiovascular Disease PreventionJay Cohn, M.D., and Daniel Duprez, M.D., Ph.D., are using 10 novel “biomarkers” to predict the level of heart disease in their patients.

“These are not tests that reveal cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure‚” Cohn says. “These tests actually measure the stages of cardiovascular disease progression that leads to heart attacks‚ strokes‚ and other lethal conditions.”

Since the Rasmussen Center opened in 2000‚ more than 1‚500 people have walked through its doors. So far‚ Duprez says‚ the center’s risk measurements have been quite accurate in predicting adverse events.

Duprez‚ who holds the Donald and Patricia Garofalo Chair in Preventive Cardiology‚ also works with cardiovascular genomics researcher Jennifer Hall, Ph.D., to analyze the genetic makeup of the center’s patient population. Hall and Duprez hope that the information they gather will shed new light on what predisposes a person to heart disease.

“The studies are designed to identify genes that put you at risk for cardiovascular disease‚ but there are likely genes that protect you as well‚” explains Hall.

Garry‚ holder of the St. Jude Medical Cardiovascular Chair in Biomedical Engineering‚ says this collaborative approach to heart research gives University physicians and scientists a rich environment in which to work.

“In 10 years‚ the therapies that we have for heart disease will be radically different from what they are today‚ and I think we will be able to say that we pioneered these advances‚” Garry says.

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