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Jelena’s work could lead to improved treatment for the tens of thousands of Australians who suffer a heart attack each year.

As a biological engineer, I am fascinated by how we can now grow artificial tissue in the laboratory to perform a range of functions that are normally done by a living organ in the body. 

We know that heart disease is the single leading cause of death. Yet, despite all the wonderful advances in medicine, right now there are no effective treatments for damaged heart tissue caused by a heart attack. 

A heart attack can result in the heart muscle being permanently damaged, leaving it weakened, and unable to pump as much blood as usual. 

My research is aiming to advance the technology that could one day repair the hearts of people living with a damaged heart. This work is looking to take us one step closer to using bioengineered tissues as a viable alternative to donor organs. 

In the lab today, we can grow ‘cardiac patches’ which are simple, heart tissue analogues, aimed at replacing damaged heart muscle. This approach has a lot of potential to be the clinical alternative to heart transplantation. However, the effectiveness of cardiac patches developed in a laboratory is currently limited; they’re very small and do not integrate effectively with the human body. 

Normally, in the human body, survival of cells is maintained by an extensive network of blood vessels. 

These blood vessels deliver oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body and also take away harmful waste products. 

We can already build many tissues such as skin, bone, and muscle in the laboratory, but the biggest barrier to upscaling has been the lack of a blood supply. 

The goal of my research is to develop cardiac patches by populating silk materials with isolated cells and investigating strategies that promote rapid and robust blood vessel formation. 

There are two major parts to my research

  • The first is finding the best way to promote vascularisation using silk as a scaffolding material to build the tissue around; 
  • The second is to determine the cells most suitable for the job, with stem cells being the leading contender. 

Our vision is a future in which we can offer novel treatment options for patients suffering from cardiovascular disease by growing replacement tissues in the laboratory. It’s obviously quite a challenge, but I am working with a talented, multidisciplinary team to meet it. 

It is fantastic to have funding from the Heart Foundation, and support from donors like you, for this vital work that could save countless lives in the future. 

Improved cardiac patches will help thousands of people like Nicola, who have suffered a heart attack, recover faster and stronger. 

- Dr Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina 

Thank you,

Dr Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina 
Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow 
Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering 
UNSW Sydney (University of New South Wales.