Claudia Irizarry was just five months pregnant when a routine ultrasound revealed that her unborn daughter, Angela, had a life-threatening heart defect that left her heart with only one functioning chamber to pump blood. Babies born with this serious condition usually live just a short time unless their walnut-sized hearts undergo immediate reconstruction.
At age three and a half, Angela came to Nationwide Children’s Hospital and became the first person in the United States to receive a tissue-engineered blood vessel, marking a historic moment for the field of regenerative medicine. The graft was created by infusing a biodegradable scaffold, shaped like a blood vessel, with Angela’s own cells. After a few weeks inside her body, the scaffold melted away, leaving behind a perfectly functioning vessel that grows with Angela.
Angela also became the first child to enroll in a five-year study to follow her progress, opening the door for several other children with organ defects who could benefit from tissue-engineered vessels.
“I always told Angela that she is special because she has these problems in her heart, but now she’s more special because she’s helping another kid,” says her mom Claudia. “She may not have a normal heart, but she has a big heart.”
Today, six-year-old Angela’s “big heart” is pumping strong and telling her to be a firefighter and a doctor. When she isn’t busy pedaling around on her bike with her big brother, Alexander, she’s dancing, drawing and writing. She recently took up gymnastics and loves school. Doctors expect her—and her grafted vessel—to continue to grow and thrive.