Scientists Grow Functional Heart Tissue from Human Stem Cells

Monday, 14 March 2016 - 5:14PM
Medical Tech
Monday, 14 March 2016 - 5:14PM
The U.S. has a serious heart shortage. At any given time, up to 20,000 people in the U.S. could benefit from a heart transplant, but only approximately 2,000 undergo the procedure each year. Now, scientists may be one step closer to growing synthetic hearts to cure our heart donor shortage, as researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital have managed to grow living heart tissue from human stem cells.

For the study, published in Circulation Research, the research team used messenger RNA to convert skin cells into pluripotent stem cells, which can be manipulated into cardiac cells. But organ tissue cannot just spontaneously grow from skin cells; the stem cells need an extracellular matrix to provide scaffolding for the structure of the tissue. Instead of building these matrices from scratch, the researchers used donor hearts at the hospital that were deemed unsuitable for transplantation. They removed all of the living cells with a detergent, leaving only the neutral scaffolding behind.

They then introduced the cardiac muscle cells from the manipulated stem cells into the extracellular matrix, and placed the nascent heart tissue into a bioreactor with a nutrient solution. After two weeks, the cardiac muscle tissue was still immature, but it contracted in response to electrical stimulation, just like a normal heart.

This is a huge breakthrough, as the ability to grow patient-specific donor hearts would eliminate the risk of heart rejection, and would mitigate the donor shortage considerably. We're still a few years away from growing a full-fledged heart, but this was a significant step in that direction.

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"Regenerating a whole heart is most certainly a long-term goal that is several years away, so we are currently working on engineering a functional myocardial patch that could replace cardiac tissue damaged due [to] a heart attack or heart failure," Guyette said in a statement (via CNET). "Among the next steps that we are pursuing are improving methods to generate even more cardiac cells... and electronically integrating regenerated tissue to function within the recipient's heart."
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