For the first time, scientists have bioengineered human heart tissue – live and beating – that is similar enough to real heart tissue to be used for medical research.
The tissue is made up of actual human cardiac cells that are just as developed, matured, and complex as real adult human heart tissue. Scientists have been able to grow human tissues before using stem cells, including heart muscle, however this the first time the tissue is mature enough to be used for biomedical research on disease and human physiology.
“The resulting engineered tissue is truly unprecedented in its similarity to functioning human tissue,” said Seila Selimovic, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering Tissue Chips program, part of the National Institutes of Health that funded this research, in a statement.
Stem cells are an especially awesome type of undifferentiated cells that are able to change into specialized cells. The team got their hands on some by simply taking a blood sample. From this, they derived early-stage cardiac muscle cells, also known as cardiomyocytes and then cultured them using their new revolutionary method. This approach allowed them to nurture the cells to maturity in just four weeks, compared to the usual nine months.
“The ability to develop mature cardiac tissue in such a short time is an important step in moving us closer to having reliable human tissue models for drug testing,” added Selimovic.
The resulting tissue had all the fiddly hallmarks of real, mature cardiac tissue, such as "adult-like gene expression profiles, remarkably organized ultrastructure... the presence of transverse tubules, oxidative metabolism, and functional calcium handling," the study reads.
The research is not just an impressive demonstration of biomedical science, it could prove extremely useful for other scientists hoping to study the heart. For one, it means they have a reliable human tissue model that will make drug testing significantly faster, safer, and cheaper. Who knows, it could even open the door for more advanced bioengineering projects that could create transplantable human organs.
"It took a lot of creative thinking and clever engineering by the whole team across both campuses of Columbia University to develop the model we now have, a highly matured, patient-specific heart muscle that can be used for studies of heart development, physiology, disease, and responses to drugs." said senior author Professor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic.