USC researchers land NIH grant to develop pacemaker for unborn babies
A team of researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering has landed a three-year, $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to help develop a tiny pacemaker for unborn babies with a potentially fatal heart problem called fetal heart block.
“We needed this money to move our research forward,” said Yaniv Bar-Cohen, associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the Keck School, director of cardiac rhythm devices at CHLA and one of the project’s principal researchers.
The project began when Ramen Chmait, assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Keck School, contacted Bar-Cohen to discuss fetal heart block, a condition that causes an extremely slow heart rate that may not be adequate to sustain the circulation
Determined to build a small pacemaker, the professors initially approached pacemaker manufacturers about collaborating with them, but they all declined due to the small initial market.
The researchers overcame that hurdle through an introduction to Gerald Loeb, professor of biomedical engineering at USC Viterbi, who had the answer to their problem
“We were hunting for a bioengineer, and we found Dr. Loeb right here,” Chmait said. “He was the perfect fit.”
In addition to his expertise as an engineer, Loeb is also a trained surgeon who has developed medical devices.
Working with financial support from the Southern California Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the group created a prototype for a pacemaker that was less than 20 millimeters long.
Other doctors have attempted to devise a solution for fetal heart block by implanting a standard pacemaker in the mother and connecting to her baby through a wire. But because babies wriggle in the womb, the wires became dislodged.
To avoid that problem, the USC group — which included Michael Silka, Keck School professor and director of cardiology at CHLA, and Jay Pruetz, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Keck School and director of fetal cardiology at CHLA — designed a pacemaker that is implanted directly onto the baby’s heart through a device similar to a narrow straw.
Chmait, who is also director of Los Angeles Fetal Therapy, called the award a “very pleasant surprise.”
He said the USC group was unsure it would receive NIH funding because the institute tends to support research that will benefit large numbers of people. Their device, if it eventually works, will likely only be implanted into a few hundred babies every year.
Bar-Cohen added, however, that eventually there may be a broader use for a pacemaker similar to their creation. The hope is that eventually this device, or something similar that doesn’t require invasive surgery to implant, will eventually be used in children and adults.
Chmait and Bar-Cohen are optimistic they’ll be able to test the device soon and that the NIH grant could help them see this project through.
“I strongly believe that we will have something in three years,” Chmait said.