Inner Workings: The race to patch the human heart [Medical Sciences]
In the lab of biomedical engineer Nenad Bursac of Duke University, patches of human heart tissue beat rhythmically on their own accord. Each translucent patch—on some days up to about 15 patches, 4 centimeters by 4 centimeters each—sits suspended in its own dish on a gently rocking platform. A red broth washes over the cells as the tissues strengthen. If these patches can get strong enough, and functional enough, they may just revolutionize heart repair.
Heart tissue is challenging to generate in the lab but even more so in the adult body. During a heart attack, as many as one billion contracting heart cells known as cardiomyocytes can be lost (1). Those cells do not regenerate. Instead, the heart forms scar tissue that cannot transmit electrical signals or contract, putting patients at risk of heart failure.
Researchers are using a diverse array of tools, from rocking dishes to 3D bioprinters, to engineer tissues that could one day help replace the cells lost during a heart attack. Image courtesy of Shutterstock/Petrafler.
According to the CDC, about 790,000 Americans have a heart attack each year (2). Because existing therapies cannot heal the heart and organ donations are scarce, patients are left with limited options. “If we could put back actively contracting cardiac muscle cells, then we believe we would be delivering the largest benefit,” Bursac says.
Bursac and other researchers are racing to fabricate a cardiac patch with ingredients, ranging from heart cells to thigh-muscle cells, and tools as diverse as rocking dishes and 3D bioprinters. But before heart patches become a real option for patients, researchers must overcome challenges ranging from the logistical—how to mass produce and store them—to the biological—how to build a patch thick enough for powerful contractions and synchronize its rhythm with the heart’s own.
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