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Welsh trainee leads pioneering project set to transform future treatment of heart attack patients

A Welsh-trained surgeon is behind potentially lifesaving new equipment that could change the way heart attacks are treated.

Heart disease is one of the prime causes of death in Wales. This includes heart attacks which can damage heart muscle and lead to heart failure.

Research is currently being done into ways to regenerate muscle after a heart attack including repairing the heart by putting a patch onto its surface. This technique is just reaching human trials and it uses invasive and risky open-heart surgery to transplant the bioprinted patches.

But now cardiothoracic surgeon Chris Roche, a Health Education and Improvement Wales (HEIW) trainee, has led a team of robotics and engineering specialists in Australia who may have come up with a better way.

Chris and his team invented surgical instrument prototypes for minimally invasive robotic keyhole surgery to transplant patches to the heart. The pioneering work potentially suggests a pathway to solving the problem of how to transplant patches on to heart failure patients in the future. 

Chris said: “I paused my training in Wales to take three years out to do a PhD in Sydney, Australia (sort of “on loan” from Wales to New South Wales). It’s quite a nice example of how the Welsh training programme allows people to develop knowledge and skills from others by travelling to different places for research and to learn new skills.”

There are only a few centres in the world with the expertise, equipment and facilities to do this and a multidisciplinary team at two universities in Australia (University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney) worked collaboratively to allow it to happen.

This innovative project was done alongside Chris’ PhD, which sees him working on converting stem cells from blood or skin into beating heart cells. He has found that it is possible to recreate a patient’s own cells using a 3D bioprinter to make heart patches that match people’s own cells. In future, this could mean on-demand replacements of heart cells for a heart attack patient that carry no risk of rejection by the body, a much lower risk of heart failure and no lengthy transplant waiting lists.

Chris added: “If in 20 years people are transplanting heart patches routinely by minimally invasive robotics then it will have been some young upstart trainee on loan from Wales to Sydney, and a group of unpaid undergraduate engineering students who did it for the first time in the world and I think that’s worth a coffee to celebrate!”

Trainees – just like Chris - are the next generation of health care. We pride ourselves on supporting trainees and students to reach their full potential.