If you saw Avery, a six-year-old girl, in her dance class today, you’d never guess she nearly passed away from a heart defect. She had her first open-heart surgery shortly after birth, and the procedure damaged a large portion of her heart. She was declared healthy enough to go home after two months in the hospital. Jess Blias, Avery’s mother, rushed her back a few weeks later because Avery had “turned blue.” Her heart was only pumping at half capacity, necessitating another surgery that might be the breakthrough of a game-changing transplant that can treat dying organs.
Can Mitochondrial Transplant Save Dying Organs?
Doctors began preparing her for a heart transplant, but they found that her heart functioned a little better than they’d expected during the brief seconds when they unplugged her from ECMO, the machine that pumped her blood, to clean the tubes, suggesting that organs might be salvageable. That’s when Sitaram Emani, a Boston Children’s Hospital cardiovascular surgeon and department head, met Blias and volunteered to undertake an experimental treatment to save her daughter’s life: a mitochondrial transplant.
This method entails taking a patient’s mitochondria (small oval structures that provide energy to cells) and inserting them into the damaged tissue of the organs. If everything goes according to plan, healthy mitochondria will be taken into damaged cells and will help them recover from the inside out. “It was kind of like a Hail Mary,” Blias shares because there were no other options for the infant Avery. It miraculously worked. Each day, Avery’s heart became stronger, and she was allowed to return home. She’s had six heart surgeries in as many years and still requires regular cardiology therapy, yet you’d never know anything was wrong if you saw her today.
A Mitochondrial Mayhem
In a manner that pharmaceuticals haven’t been able to define, scientists are now hoping that an infusion of mitochondria would jump-start the cellular processes required to restore damaged hearts, brains, and possibly other organs. So far, animal models and a few first-in-human studies, such as Avery’s, have yielded promising results. New biotech businesses have emerged in recent years to harness the power of mitochondria for uses ranging from wound healing to anti-aging.
There’s still a lot to learn, and government funding for this type of organs study is scarce at the moment. For example, the Boston Red Sox rely substantially on philanthropic donations. Michael Levitt, an associate professor of neurological surgery at the University of Washington, is aiming to transplant mitochondria into stroke patients’ brains, and he claims his team has “no external financing whatsoever.” “It’s all sweat, blood, and tears.”
Nonetheless, scientists that are following this road are optimistic that mitochondrial transplants will revolutionize the treatment of a variety of ailments, from wounds to strokes and heart attacks. Melanie Walker, a clinical professor of neurological surgery at the University of Washington and a colleague of Levitt’s, adds, “We’re very hopeful about what this could mean.”