The search is on for ways to mend hearts before they break

Small hearts can have the big troubles.

Each year, about 40,000 newborns in the U.S. are diagnosed with a congenital heart defect, meaning that there is a problem with the heart’s structure that may prevent it from working at full capacity. Of these, up to a quarter will require surgery within the infant’s first year of life. An estimated 1 million children and 1.4 million adults in the U.S. live with some type of heart defect.

To mark Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week, we spoke to Dr. Eric Kort, a research scientist in the DeVos Cardiovascular Research Program, about the exciting research underway in Grand Rapids to find new ways to prevent and treat heart defects. Led by Dr. Stefan Jovinge, the program is a joint effort between Van Andel Research Institute and Spectrum Health to find ways to help the heart heal itself. The team’s work on congenital heart defects is a close collaboration with the Congenital Heart Center at Spectrum Health’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, spearheaded by Dr. Marcus Haw and Dr. Joseph Vettukattil.

“We understand what causes heart defects in less than one-third of cases,” Kort said. “We want to figure out why these problems occur and develop ways to prevent them from happening.”

Turning back time
To find a solution, you need to know a lot about the problem. In the case of heart defects, an intricate understanding of what goes on during the earliest stages of development is crucial for designing new treatments and prevention strategies.

Enter induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. Derived from mature cells—say skin cells from your arm or blood cells from a routine blood draw—iPS cells can be reprogrammed to become other types of cells, including those from the heart. Since their discovery more than a decade ago, they have become an invaluable tool, opening promising avenues for discovery across the spectrum of biomedical research.

“iPS cells allow us to turn back the clock,” Kort said. “By taking a blood sample from an infant and turning those blood cells into heart cells, we’re able to rewind and replay what happened in the womb. We can watch as that happens to try to figure out what may be unusual about those cells that may be linked to heart defects.”

Looking at cells, one-on-one…
It’s not just iPS cells—other technological breakthroughs are fueling research that wouldn’t have been possible only a few years ago.

“We used to have to look at big piles of cells—it was difficult to know what was happening in all of the them,” Kort said. “Now, we can look at individual cells and know what kind they are and exactly what is happening inside of them, which we use to gain new knowledge about how heart defects develop and, more broadly, how the heart itself develops.”

…and looking at cells on a large scale
Although looking at cells individually can give scientists new insights, so too can searching for trends across an entire population. Powered by Institute’s high-performance computing system, Jovinge’s team is sifting through than a billion data points to look for correlations between heart defects and other traits, from certain changes in the genetic code to the presence or absence of certain nutrients.

“It’s now common knowledge that ensuring a mother has enough folate in her diet is important for a baby’s development,” Kort said. “Perhaps we can find something similar that may help prevent heart defects.”

About the DeVos Cardiovascular Research Program
The DeVos Cardiovascular Research Program is a joint effect between Van Andel Research Institute and Spectrum Health led by Dr. Stefan Jovinge. Using an interdisciplinary and translational approach, the Jovinge team investigates the heart’s potential to health itself in order to develop the next generation of cardiac therapies.