Sally and John Turrittin’s son, Jeff, was born 29 years ago with a heart defect called aortic valve stenosis. In people who have this condition, the heart’s aortic valve doesn’t open fully, which causes decreased blood flow from the heart.
Thankfully, Jeff’s disease was manageable throughout his childhood with annual visits to his cardiologist. But his family always knew that he would someday need to have surgery to replace the faulty valve.
So when Jeff was 12 or 13 years old and Sally Turrittin found a magazine article about researchers who were developing a way to grow a heart valve in the lab, it piqued her interest.
“I brought it in to his cardiologist, and I said, ‘I want one of those,’” she recalls.
More than a decade later, that science hasn’t yet been perfected for humans. But University of Minnesota investigator Doris Taylor, Ph.D., is getting close.
In January 2008, she and her colleagues revealed that they had created a beating rat heart in the lab. Using a process known as decellularization, the team removed all of the cells from a cadaver rat heart, leaving only the organ’s basic structural scaffolding. when the researchers populated the scaffolding with newborn rat heart cells, the organ came back to life.
Taylor, who directs the University’s Center for Cardiovascular Repair, and her team also have transplanted the recellularized heart into a live rat to prove that it could survive. And it has.
Taylor believes that this process could work for virtually any organ. And she says it’s years—not decades—away from being ready for clinical trials in humans.
That’s what really excites the Turrittins. Jeff has already had one heart valve replacement surgery and will likely have another in his lifetime. Plus, John Turrittin adds, there are many potential complications of these procedures—which, besides risks associated with the surgery itself, include rejection and blood clotting—that need to be managed with daily medications and monthly blood tests. What if scientists instead could create a new valve or organ for a person using his or her own cells, basically eliminating the risk of those complications?
“There’s almost an impatience about this kind of research because you can see the potential,” John Turrittin says.
To help speed it along, the Turrittins gave $2,500 to support Taylor’s work last year. And since they observed the research in action on a tour earlier this year, they have made two additional $5,000 gifts.
“We know that someday [Jeff] will have a valve that is essentially his own, and we will have people like Doris Taylor to thank,” Sally Turrittin says.