Researchers on the verge of growing human hearts

Siva Nagarajah

Untitled 1210 Researchers on the verge of growing human heartsAs I type, 17 human hearts are currently forming and there is much anticipation as to whether they will beat.

Being led by Dr Doris Taylor in collaboration with colleagues in Madrid at The Centre for Cardiovascular Repair – University of Minnesota. the work builds on previous successes with both rat and pig hearts using “whole organ decellularisation”. This novel technique involves washing cardiac cells out to leave only a pale fibrous matrix-“a ghost heart”. This then acts as a scaffold on which stem cells placed divide, grow, and contract causing the heart to beat. In the midst of seminars, flights and on-going research, I caught up with Dr Taylor to explore this groundbreaking venture in cardiovascular repair.

Creating organs for transplant is a subject matter often viewed with dubious sentiment – caught somewhere between science fiction and reality – but Dr Taylor tells me to “trust your crazy ideas”. A motto of hers from which the decelluarlised ‘ghost’ heart was born”, in a search for radical ways to treat end-stage heart failure. “Nature has created some very complex and effective tools for repairing the human body. Endogenous repair, or the body’s ability to heal itself, is a powerful tool that we’re just starting to understand how to harness. I believe that it is possible to harness it, to optimize it and to begin to reverse disease and aging.”

In 1998 the team pioneered transplanting stem cells to patients post heart attack, leading to improved function. Reminiscing on publishing the work, Dr Taylor said “A member of the media asked me: ‘If it’s so simple, why someone hasn’t done it before?’ And what I realised was that no one had done it before because no one had believed it was possible.”

It became clear that whilst the nature of her work would be very simple, “we were never going to understand exactly how it worked”. Thus forming the philosophy “giving nature the tools and getting out of the way”, to illustrate largely how little they understood about what they were doing. But she pointed me to the example of willow bark-“hundreds of years after it was first used as an analgesic, we still don’t fully know how aspirin stops pain. That being said, we don’t have to understand every detail but…understand it enough to make it safe and effective.”

Work is underway on a variety of organs; lungs, kidney, liver, and pancreas to name but a few. At the center for cardiovascular repair, human liver cells grown on a rat liver matrix have been show to metabolise drugs out to thirty days, whilst pancreas studies in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin “are moving quickly”. The biggest struggle facing such work is funding I am told – currently “at historic lows with further cuts being proposed” to the National Institute of Health.

Whilst “these advances are exciting and hold great hope for future therapeutics”, it is evident they are still at the early stages of research.

“Many hurdles will have to be passed before we can perhaps use scaffolds from cadavers or pig hearts to build human hearts amongst other organs for transplantation. But what this marks “is the future of treatment of cardiovascular issues.” One that will be “a multifaceted approach involving drugs, cell therapy, matrix repair and replacement”.

Untitled 161 Researchers on the verge of growing human hearts

This image is of rats hearts that were successfully recellularised and began to beat.

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  • Alastair_93

    The scientists didn’t say “on the verge”. The sub-editor of the Independent said “on the verge” when he/she wrote the title for this article. I wish people wouldn’t confuse journalistic input with scientific opinion. It’s not difficult to look for quote marks or look up the original research.

    Medical advances take a lot of time because science is a slow process. More basic research is needed in biology before it can be translated into therapeutic medicine. If you think it’s going too slowly for your liking, then do a PhD yourself and contribute to the progress. Complaining about it won’t speed things up.

    Initial trials of any technique or drug are always expensive. It used to be the case that routine laboratory techniques (i.e. gene sequencing, molecular cloning) were astronomically expensive and time-consuming, until they were scaled up by industrial methods generated by further research. If you give up at the first hurdle, you won’t get anywhere. 

    Insulin is now extremely easy and cheap to produce in ordinary lab-strain E.coli. But once upon a time it was a developmental technique and hugely expensive. As common sense would have it, further scientific research eventually made it cheaper and more available. This doesn’t mean that insulin is now only available for the rich and privileged. It’s available to anyone with diabetes on the NHS. Attitudes like yours impede scientific progress.

  • QueenFlorence

    If you read my comments carefully you will see I was not being critical of the slow speed of progress but rather I was confused at the fact that this story has been reannounced as new at least 4 times in the less than a year and I was questioning why?

    I am still puzzled about where this option may fit  in as a treatment option-is it going to be a minority sport or is it for all 700,000 sufferers of heart failure inthe UK when they reach the endstage?

    I also suspect that there are going to be a broad range of treatment options availiable by the time this process comes to fruition.
    Its hype and both media and scientists symbiotically collude in this,that I object to not science or scientific research.

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