UMN Medical School Researcher Lands Grant to Unlock Regenerative Potential of Human Heart

MINNEAPOLIS, June 13th, 2017 – The University of Minnesota Medical School today announced that Jop van Berlo, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Medicine’s Cardiovascular Division and Lillehei Heart Institute, is one of 12 researchers nationwide to earn a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award from The Hartwell Foundation. He will receive $300,000 over three years to fund research aimed at developing a treatment for hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a rare and devastating congenital heart defect.

In addition, the University of Minnesota will receive another $100,000 over two years to fund a Hartwell Fellowship to support one postdoctoral candidate in biomedical research who exemplifies the Foundation’s values.

“Dr. van Berlo’s work is truly innovative and could one day help improve the lives of many children and families,” said Tucker LeBien, Ph.D., vice dean for research at the Medical School. “This Hartwell Award validates the University’s leadership in the field of cardiovascular research, and it will help us continue discovering new treatments for patients.”

What is hypoplastic left heart syndrome?

HLHS occurs in one in 4,000 births and is fatal without surgical intervention. The hearts of children born with HLHS are underdeveloped and have too few muscle cells to pump blood effectively throughout the body. The poor blood flow causes neurocognitive delays and severe physical limitations. Although recent surgical techniques have significantly improved the survival of this condition, too few children with HLHS will live to become adults, and many will die prematurely.

Van Berlo’s research will explore the use of genes to prompt the scarce heart cells to divide and multiply, allowing the underdeveloped heart to continue growing after the child is born. Van Berlo said this approach, which could minimize the risks of surgery and improve long-term outcomes, will likely have broader applications in treating other congenital heart defects.

“The regeneration of cardiac cells is some of the most exciting science I have ever worked on,” said van Berlo, who is also affiliated with the University’s Stem Cell Institute. “Through this research, I hope to unlock the pediatric heart’s ability to form new cells, so children with HLHS can be active, thrive, and avoid heart failure.”

A prestigious recognition

Each year The Hartwell Foundation invites a limited number of U.S. institutions to hold an internal, open competition to nominate candidates from their faculty who are involved in early-stage, innovative and cutting-edge biomedical research with the potential to benefit children of the United States. In the 2016 competition, 17 institutions were invited to participate.

“The Hartwell Foundation seeks to inspire innovation and achievement by offering individual researchers an opportunity to realize their hopes and dreams. The innovative research proposed by Dr. van Berlo has great potential to reshape a complex technical problem and accelerate clinical and translational research to benefit many children born with congenital heart defects,” said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation.

This was the University of Minnesota’s first time participating in the Hartwell competition. For more information about The Hartwell Foundation, visit