Courtesy Thomas Matthiesen, University of Minnesota
Did you know that nearly 5 million people live with heart failure? More surprisingly, approximately 50,000 United States patients die annually waiting for a donor heart.
University of Minnesota researchers recently announced they have created a beating heart in the laboratory. It sounds like science fiction, but it is a real medical breakthrough. The researchers removed the tissue from a dead rat heart and replaced it with living cells from newborn rats. With the help of electrical signals, the entire heart began to beat.
The researchers used a detergent to remove the cells from the rat hearts. This left behind only the nonliving fibers that give the heart its shape. The result was a white, rubbery, 3-D “skeleton”. This structure, called the extracellular matrix, allows cells to attach and grow into tissue, and gives the heart muscle something to pull against. The researchers injected cells from newborn rats into the left ventricle and pumped oxygen and nutrients through the structure of blood vessels. They helped the process by sending electrical signals through the new tissue. In eight days, the hearts were pumping – some continued beating for 40 days.
The supply of donor organs is limited and the risks for infection or rejection of the transplanted organ can be high. If the technique is perfected, doctors may be able to use patients’ own stem cells to recellularize a donor heart.
The next steps
The University of Minnesota research team has successfully decellularized pig hearts, and hopes that other types of organs can be created in the future.