In a 1st, baby's heart defect successfully treated with injected stem cells

photo of an older white man with glasses holding a blonde baby wearing a onesie in the lobby of a hospital
Dr. Massimo Caputo holding baby Finley on the day he left hospital. (Image credit: British Heart Foundation (BHF))

A baby born with a heart defect was the first person on record to receive an injection of stem cells to patch his heart after surgery. The boy, named Finley, is now 2 years old, and his doctors are developing a refined version of his stem cell treatment to mend more children's hearts in the future.

Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect, affecting about 1% of children born in the U.S. and the same percentage in the U.K., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (opens in new tab) (CDC) and U.K. National Health Service (opens in new tab). Baby Finley was born with a birth defect called "transposition of the great arteries," meaning the two major arteries meant to carry blood out of his heart had switched positions, according to a statement (opens in new tab) from the University of Bristol in England. 

Finley underwent open-heart surgery four days after birth, to have the arteries moved to their normal positions. Complications arose after the 12-hour procedure, and as Finley's heart function worsened, he received ongoing treatment in an intensive care unit. After weeks of this care, Dr. Massimo Caputo (opens in new tab), a professor of congenital heart surgery at Bristol Medical School, offered Finley's parents another option to consider: an injection of stem cells delivered directly into the heart.

"He warned us that he couldn't predict what the outcome would be. But we had absolutely nothing to lose," Melissa Hudd, Finley's mother, said in the statement. "We had to try and give Finley every possible chance to live." 

Related: New stem cell treatment reverses vision loss in 2 patients 

At the University of Bristol, Caputo had already been developing a "stem cell plaster," or patches containing donated stem cells that can be sewn into the heart during surgery. Unlike standard synthetic patches or replacement heart valves, in theory, these patches won't need to be replaced every so often as a child gets bigger. The plasters could help reduce or eliminate the need for children to undergo repeat open-heart surgeries, the researchers said. 

"We are trying to create living tissue, whether it's a valve or a blood vessel or a patch, that will grow with the child, and that does not deteriorate," Caputo said in a profile published by the British Heart Foundation (opens in new tab). "I think that would massively change their quality of life."  

The plasters have been shown to be safe in animals, and with grant money from the British Heart Foundation, Caputo aims to launch clinical trials in people within two years, according to the Bristol statement. 

In Finley's case, he received stem cells "under compassionate grounds," not as part of a clinical trial, and he didn't receive the plaster that Caputo is currently developing. He instead received an injection of stem cells while undergoing his second open-heart surgery. 

"Within two weeks of the stem cell treatment we noticed a change in Finley. He came home for the first time when he was just six months old on a machine that still helps him breathe at night," Hudd said. "We don't know what the future brings, but we are so grateful for Finley's life to be turned around after the stem cell treatment as he now has a chance at life he might not have had otherwise." 

Nicoletta Lanese
News Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is a news editor on Live Science's health desk. She first joined the publication in 2019 as a staff writer. She holds degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in The Scientist Magazine, Science News, The San Jose Mercury News and Mongabay, among other outlets.