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Shot to the heart: Device carries drugs directly to injured internal organ

Our bodies are basically just mobile meat packages, chock full of internal organs that keep the whole thing running. But when something goes awry inside — when, for example, the heart momentarily gives out — the fact that these organs are tucked beneath layers of skin, muscle, and bone can make long-term treatment challenging.

A new device might help make some treatments more seamless by delivering medication directly to the heart. Developed by an international team of researchers (including from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland), the device, Therepi, includes a tube that connects it to an external entry point, providing a sort of express lane from the abdomen to the internal organ.

Second Bay Studio/Harvard SEAS

In a study published this week in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers demonstrated how the device could deliver drugs, proteins, and stem cells to the heart. If applied in the real world, the technology could mean more efficiency, smaller doses, and fewer side effects than conventional drug delivery systems.

Therepi “allows repeated administration of therapy directly to a target in the body without necessitating multiple invasive surgeries,” Ellen Roche, a medical engineer at MIT and co-author of the study, told Digital Trends. “Using the platform we showed that we could increase cardiac function in a pre-clinical model, which demonstrates that the system has potential for future clinical translation.”

From the outside, Therepi would look like a small, circular, sponge-like patch on the lower abdomen. But inside the body, a small tub connects the patch to the heart, and carries medication directly to the organ.

Following a heart attack, scarring can cause further heart complications. Drugs and proteins can help treat scarring, but these medications often miss their target, requiring multiple doses and the risk of toxicity. Stem cells may also prove beneficial if they can be applied to the organ directly.

The idea is that Therepi would allow doctors to administer the medications more precisely, in smaller doses, and with fewer risks of side effects. In a 28-day pre-clinical trial conducted by Roche and her team, heart function in rodents increased for four weeks after injury when stem cells were delivered through Therepi.

There’s still plenty of work to be done on the device before it makes it to the market though. Among the next steps, Roche said it willbe making the implant more suitable for subjects and finding applications for other diseases. It will take another few years at least before Therepi might be implanted in humans.

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