She’s small for a six-month-old, but otherwise Avery Gagnon looks perfectly healthy. She smiles, kicks, laughs and grabs her toys and pacifiers. What you’d never know is that Avery has complex congenital heart disease and might not be alive today if it weren’t for an innovative procedure that used mitochondria from her own cells to boost her heart’s energy.
The procedure is the brainchild of James McCully, PhD, a cardiovascular research scientist at the Heart Center at Boston Children’s Hospital who spent most of his career working to solve a common complication of heart surgery: damage to heart muscle cells.
During certain types of heart surgery, the tissues are temporarily cut off from the body’s oxygenated blood supply. Even after oxygen supply is restored, the heart may remain stunned. The mitochondria within heart cells become dysfunctional and are unable to provide enough energy for the heart muscle to pump as strongly as it should.
Large amounts of damaged mitochondria can be especially challenging for the youngest and frailest cardiac surgery patients: infants with congenital heart disease, like Avery.
Read more about Avery and the research that saved her on our sister blog, Vector.