Bristol researcher wins BHF Research Story of the Year for work on children’s heart plaster

  • 7 December 2023

A University of Bristol researcher who has developed a new type of ‘heart plaster’ that could improve the way surgeons treat children living with congenital heart disease has won this year’s British Heart Foundation (BHF) Research Story of the Year. The award is part of the charity’s annual Heart Hero Awards 2023.

Massimo Caputo, BHF Professor of Congenital Heart Surgery and Consultant in Cardiothoracic Surgery in the Bristol Heart Institute at the University of Bristol, received his award at a ceremony in London last night [Wednesday 6 December]. The BHF‘s Heart Hero Awards recognise people who have gone the extra mile to help those with a heart and circulatory disease.

Professor Caputo and his team, funded by the BHF, have developed the first type of mesenchymal cell seeded patch to repair abnormalities to parts of the heart that control blood flow from the heart to the lungs, and to mend holes between the two main pumping chambers of the heart.

Mesenchymal cells are a type of cell that have the ability to change into a range of cell types including muscle and cartilage. The patches have the potential to adapt and grow with the child’s heart as they get older, removing the need for repetitive heart surgeries as the heart gets bigger, and the many days at hospital recovering after each one.

Professor Caputo said:

“My team and I are delighted to win the BHF Research Story of the Year. It’s an amazing recognition of all the work we have done to get to this point, and I want to thank BHF for their continued support.

“For years families have come to us asking why their child needs to go through the same heart operation many times throughout their childhood. Although each operation can be lifesaving, the experience can be extremely stressful for the child and their parents. We believe that our mesenchymal cell patches will be the answer to solve these problems.

“We hope to get the patches ready for testing in patients so clinical trials can start in the next two years. This will enable more children and babies to benefit from the life-altering technology.“

Professor James Leiper, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, added:

“We’re thrilled to have awarded Research Story of the Year to Professor Caputo. Heart surgeries are a huge ordeal for children and their families, and Professor Caputo’s development of a revolutionary ‘heart plaster’ could in future help children with congenital heart disease avoid having multiple surgeries. This award is a testament to Professor Caputo’s pioneering approach to mending hearts, and we’d like to congratulate him and his team on their achievement.”

Heart defects are the most common type of anomaly that develop before a baby is born, with around 13 babies diagnosed with a congenital heart condition every day in the UK. These include defects to the baby’s heart valves, the major blood vessels in and around the heart, and the development of holes in the heart.

Currently, for many of these children, surgeons can perform open-heart surgery to temporarily repair the problem, but the materials used for the patches or replacement heart valves cannot grow with the baby and degenerate with time. This means they can fail in a few months or years.

The mesenchymal cell plasters are designed to be sewn into the area of the child’s heart that needs repairing during surgery. The cells could then boost the repair of heart tissue without being rejected by the child’s body. The materials have already proven to work safely in animals.

There are around 200 repeat operations for people living with congenital heart disease every year in the UK. The researchers estimate the technology could save the NHS £30,000 for every operation no longer needed, saving the NHS time and millions of pounds each year.

The work was partly funded by the National Institute of Health and Care (NIHR) Bristol Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR Bristol BRC), a partnership between University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW) and the University of Bristol. Alumni and friends of the University of Bristol, including the Linder Foundation, have also given almost £1 million to this research since 2010.

Find out more about the ‘mesenchymal cell plasters’ research at: