Discovering New Ways to Treat Congenital Heart Disease at Children's Hospital Colorado

Congenital Heart Disease Research

Heart Institute patient Lauren Letzch, pictured at age 5, examines a model of her heart

What if you could build a child’s one-of-a-kind heart? What if you could implant a heart device to expand and shrink with the body’s heat?

Would children live longer? Would their heart repairs last longer? Would it mean less invasive surgeries?

These are just the questions bioengineers asked at Children’s Hospital Colorado – questions advancing diagnosis and treatment for children with congenital heart disease.

In collaboration with Children’s Hospital Colorado's Heart Institute, researchers in the department of bioengineering at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) attempt to study body mechanisms the way engineers study concrete or steel. Researchers – the bioengineers – might study why a heart fails or how certain heart devices work when implanted; they rethink surgery and invasive procedures.

Read more about the heart conditions we treat.

Building little hearts

Robin Shandas, PhD, professor of pediatrics and chair of UCD's department of bioengineering, and his team have explored three-dimensional imaging and heat-sensitive polymers, devices that help treat congenital heart defects with minimal surgery.

Dr. Shandas explains the novelty of 3-D imaging, an engineering method that images a patient’s defective heart, creates a computer model, then builds a physical prototype. With this new technology, cardiologists can see a 3-D duplicate of a unique heart and can build corrective devices based on what they see.

“Someone can actually hold the heart in their hand and see where the defect is,” said Dr. Shandas.

The cardiologist could even practice surgery – either virtually or on the physical model – on a patient’s heart.

Dr. Shandas also developed a way to correct faulty hearts using polymers (a substance made from a group of molecules) to build corrective devices that shrink and expand with the body’s changing temperatures.

For example, a cardiologist may treat a child with a hole in her heart. In normal circumstances, the cardiologist would repair the hole with a one-size-fits all double-umbrella that “may not fix the acute deficiencies specific to each patient,” said Dr. Shandas.

Combining 3-D imaging and these special polymers allows a cardiologist to build a personalized device, shrink it inside a catheter and deliver to the patient, “deploying it like a satellite in space,” said Dr. Shandas. Delivered less invasively, the unique device will better adapt as the child grows to an adult.

A promising future on the Anschutz Medical Campus

Dr. Shandas speaks about this research, and other projects, with a hopeful eye to the future – seizing “cool” opportunities for research – and a grateful attitude to relationships on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

“We have the lab right in Children’s Hospital Colorado, which is really important,” he said. “Clinicians and surgeons are really busy, so it’s easy for them to get to the lab if it’s right in the hospital. They can provide direct feedback, building and modifying prototypes along the way.”

In a field Dr. Shandas describes as “intellectually challenging,” pediatric bioengineering will surely bring inspired solutions to surgeons, cardiologists and their young patients.

Learn more about The Heart Institute at Children's Colorado.