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Improving surgery for babies born with heart defects

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Research Training Fellowship*:Dr Emilie L Sauvage

Up to nine in every 1,000 babies in the UK are born with a heart defect, a problem which doctors call congenital heart disease.1 Some of these babies need complex surgery if they are to survive. Surgeons often use a piece of tissue, called a patch, to correct the shape of the heart or its vessels. Dr Emilie Sauvage, of University College London, is searching for ways to improve the success of this type of surgery, to give babies with heart defects the best possible chance of doing well after their operation and avoiding further complications throughout their lives.

How are babies’ lives affected now?

“My long-term goal is to improve surgery for babies born with cyanotic heart disease,” says Dr Sauvage.

Around one in every four babies born with a heart defect has this type of problem. It means the baby’s heart cannot pump blood to the lungs properly. Low oxygen levels in the blood can give the babies’ skin a blueish tinge, especially on the lips, fingers and toes.

Sadly, many of these babies’ problems are so severe they are life-threatening, meaning they need complex surgery.

“During operations, surgeons often enlarge or reshape abnormal parts of the heart by adding a ‘patch’ of specially engineered tissue,” says Dr Sauvage. “Even if surgery goes well, babies must keep seeing a heart specialist regularly, because they can still develop complications later on. For example, patches may become stiffer over time, or too small as the child grows, meaning further treatment is needed.”


We urgently need ways to improve this type of surgery.

How could this research help?

Dr Sauvage is creating computer simulations of the hearts of children who were born with cyanotic heart disease and using these simulations to study how changes in patch design – such as shape, size and material – affect blood flow through the heart. She is also using the computer models to predict how a child’s growth affects implanted patches.

“My work will improve understanding of how implanted patches affect the success of surgery for cyanotic heart disease,” says Dr Sauvage. “It could pave the way for the design of new, more personalised patches that perform better over time and cause fewer complications as children grow and develop. I hope to give doctors invaluable information on the best way to use these patches during heart surgery and give babies a better chance of doing well after their operation.”


1. NHS Choices. Congenital heart disease. Website accessed 1 May 2017.

2. Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) Learning. Congenital Heart Disease. Website accessed 5 May 2017.


* Research Training Fellowships:

Each year, Action Medical Research awards these prestigious grants to help the brightest and best doctors and scientists develop their career in medical research.


Project LeaderDr E L Sauvage, PhD
Project TeamDr Emilie L Sauvage PhDProfessor Andrew M Taylor MD FRCR FRCPProfessor Tain-Yen Hsia MDDr Silvia Schievano PhDDr Giovanni Biglino PhD
Project LocationCentre for Cardiovascular Imaging, University College London (UCL) Institute of Cardiovascular Science, and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London
Project Location OtherBristol Heart Institute, School of Clinical Science, Bristol Royal Infirmary
Project duration3 years
Date awarded14 February 2017
Project start date14 August 2017
Project end date13 August 2020
Grant amount£155,516
Grant codeGN2572

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