Improving life-saving surgery for tiny hearts | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - April 2016

Improving life-saving surgery for tiny hearts

Babies born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome face a series of complex operations. Action funding is helping Dr Pablo Lamata to develop personalised 3D computer models. These could help doctors decide the best treatment for each baby, improving their chances of survival and giving them the best possible quality of life.

Less than four decades ago, babies born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, or HLHS, usually died within weeks of their birth. This rare condition affects around one baby in every 5,000 and means the left side of the heart is much smaller than usual and cannot pump enough blood to the body.

Without urgent treatment, these babies quickly become seriously ill. Medical advances already made mean more now survive and live a relatively normal life but the severity of the condition varies and it’s not clear which surgical technique works best for each individual baby. Sadly, despite best efforts, some still lose their lives.

“Babies with HLHS normally have three complex operations – the first when they’re less than two weeks old,” explains Dr Lamata. “Planning these operations is difficult, because there’s little evidence as to exactly which surgical technique would work best for each child at each stage. Research into the pros and cons of each technique is needed urgently.”

Dr Lamata and his team, based at King’s College London, will analyse MRI scans of more than 150 babies treated for the syndrome. They will then use advanced computer modelling techniques to create virtual 3D models of each baby’s heart before and after surgery. These personalised models will show the shape of each baby’s heart and the way blood flows, which indicates how well the heart is working.

“We hope these models will provide doctors with detailed information on the condition of each baby’s heart at birth,” explains Dr Lamata. “They could also allow doctors to monitor how well each baby’s little heart adapts to the different stages of surgery.” 

“By comparing babies’ hearts before and after surgery, we hope to reveal the benefits and drawbacks of different surgical techniques. This would enable doctors to make more informed decisions while planning when, and how, to operate on each baby as they grow and develop. This, in turn, could increase babies’ chances of surviving and improve their quality of life,” he concludes.

This project has been jointly funded with Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity.

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