CURF Introduction: A New Solution For Congenital Heart Defects

Hello! My name is Ben Leslie and I am a junior majoring in Bioengineering and minoring in Chemistry. Along with this I also play for the Men’s Ice Hockey team here at Pitt. Within Bioengineering, I am specializing within the Cellular Engineering track, but I also enjoy Biomechanics, which is a large part of the research I do. I work within Dr. D’Amore and Dr. Wagner’s lab, which is a part of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The project I have been working on is an artificial pulmonary heart valve scaffold, which leverages in situ tissue engineering to produce an artificial valve made out of the patient’s own cells. Being made out of the patient’s own cells provides this new valve with regenerative and remodeling capabilities, which allows the valve to grow as the patient does. This has particular applications as a solution for congenital heart defects. 

Congenital heart defects are one of the most common birth defects, with one occurring in 1 out of every 100 births. Of congenital heart defects, anomalies affecting valves, particularly those in the aortic and pulmonary positions, are common. Current treatments include valve replacement with either a mechanical or bioprosthetic valve. These options include many risks, including thrombosis, calcification, and stenosis. Along with these complications, those with congenital defects often need multiple surgeries to replace these valves as the heart grows. This further increases the risk and potential for poor outcomes. By creating a valve that has the capacity to grow and remodel with the patient, the risk for many of the complications would be eliminated, as well as the need for recurrent open-heart surgery.

While this technology has implications within congenital heart defects, this scaffold can also be applied to adult valve replacement. Because this valve eliminates many of the complications that accompany the traditional treatment options, this valve may reduce the need for reoperation, increase long-term survivability, and improve quality of life. This valve also offers potential within minimally invasive solutions, such as transcatheter aortic value replacement, which has increased in popularity in recent years.

I am currently unsure of my postgraduate goals; however, I am considering applying to either graduate school, or medical school. Regardless of my decision, I am certain that I want research to be a part of my future career, which is why I want to continue to deepen my exposure to research and my field, which is exactly what the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship allows me to do.

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