Center for Cardiovascular Biology

Every child’s heart is delicate, indeed.

But for those who face the world with serious cardiac defects, the Center for Cardiovascular Biology strives to develop research that will not only repair hearts, but make kids’ lives whole again.

Tapping into Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s sheer patient volume, Emory’s stellar academia and Georgia Institute of Technology’s cutting edge engineering, the center is the perfect bridge between the bench and the bedside.

“The goal of the center in its initial incarnation was to develop more of a presence in basic cardiovascular research and translational research,” said Dr. Mary Wagner, the center’s director and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University’s School of Medicine.

Already, the center – started in 2009 – has about 10 projects in the works. In addition, it’s successfully recruited researchers specializing in nanotechnology, the study and manipulation of molecular structures.

“We want to be one of the best pediatric heart centers in the nation,” Wagner said. “And we will become that because we are in a rather unique position of being able to bring basic research and clinical care together.”

Of course, it is only through the constant stream of financing and support that a research center can thrive – especially when many projects are on not a one- or five-year track, but a 15—year or 20-year track.

But the hope is that this ground level research will help the next generation of patients overcome some of the worst cardiac outcomes.

One, for example, is a basic physiological truth: Children grow.

Growth – so routine for most of us - causes a multitude of problems for cardiac patients and doctors. Surgeries for babies have to be repeated for toddlers and school-aged children, risking infection and death.  Devices have to be replaced. And regardless of all the progress, weakened hearts often are not prepared for the physical challenges of increasing blood flow for the brain and other organs.

“Survival used to be what we were aiming for,” Wagner said. “But now that we have achieved that, we have an obligation to try and improve these kids’ quality of life.”

Two key research projects showing promise:

  • A study examining a protein called c-kit that is present in heart cells only during the first few weeks after birth. When c-kit was inhibited in mice, scientists have discovered that they end up being “super athletes,” with hearts that worked harder and responded to injury better. This could be incredibly useful in such conditions as Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome – one of the most severe heart defects, where the left ventricle does not form properly. Researchers are exploring whether a child born with HLHS could be treated with an inhibitor of c-kit, which could result in a heart that is able to respond much better to a greater workload as the child grows.
  • A project attempting to create a biological pacemaker that would grow with the child and reduce the need for multiple surgeries. This project would require that stem cells be transformed into heart cells. It is also an example of how the center’s institutional collaboration is critical, since this project requires input from Georgia Tech and the Center for Pediatric Nanomedicine.

Although both of these are in the beginning stages, Wagner has the guarded optimism of a scientist – she believes the research is solid and will be greatly helped in the future by CHOA’s record of having the largest volume of pediatric patients.

“Sometimes, as a researcher, you can get lost in the cool and the exciting,” she said. “But we are always reminded that we are here to make kids better. And you can’t do that if you don't talk to those on the front line – the doctors, the families, the kids.”

To find out more about the Center for Cardiovascular Biology, visit www.pedsresearch.org.