In a medical first, University researchers have created a beating heart in the laboratory. Using detergents, they stripped away the cells from rat hearts until only the nonliving matrix, or “skeleton,” was left; they then repopulated the matrix with fresh heart cells.
If perfected, the technique may be used someday to generate new hearts for patients. In the United States alone, about 5 million people live with heart failure, 550,000 new cases are diagnosed every year, and 50,000 die waiting for a donor heart.
“The results were a home run,” says Doris Taylor, director of the University’s Center for Cardiovascular Repair and a principal investigator on the study. “We knew that cell therapy–that is, transplanting cells into [a patient’s damaged] heart–is not a panacea. So we started thinking, ‘Is there a way to use cells to engineer heart tissue?'”
The idea, she says, is to create whole new blood vessels or organs by implanting a patient’s own cells into a matrix derived from a donor organ. This approach ought to bypass the problem of organ rejection because the matrix, being devoid of cells, shouldn’t provoke an immune response. Even if it did, the new cells would create a fresh matrix of their own, which would turn off the immune response and free patients from the need to take immunosuppressive drugs.
The process, called whole organ recellularization, can be done “with virtually any organ,” Taylor says.
A simple plan
The main hurdle in creating new hearts wasn’t finding the right cells but recreating the vastly complex architecture of the heart, Taylor explains. In puzzling it over, she and Harald Ott, a research associate in the center (now a surgical resident at Harvard Medical School and first author of the study), hit on a way to get nature to solve the problem for them.
To remove cells from fresh rat hearts, the researchers pumped solutions of detergents through the network of blood vessels that normally nourish the organ. The treatment popped all the cells like balloons and washed away the debris, leaving the matrix of protein fibers that form the backbone of a living heart’s connective tissue. It’s called the extracellular matrix, or ECM.
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The naked ECMs looked strikingly like “ghost hearts”: eerily white, rubbery “skeletons” that retained the organ’s original 3-D structure. Among the surviving features was the tubing of blood vessels, which came in handy later.Next, the team removed hearts from newborn rats and minced them, liberating a motley crew of adult and undifferentiated cells. The mix contained stem cells and progenitor cells–which have less potential than stem cells but can still become multiple cell types–along with adult heart muscle cells and many other types.
“Newborn tissue is rich in cells that are more hearty and more tolerant [than adult cells],” says Taylor.
The researchers then injected these cells into the left ventricles of the ECM hearts and began pumping a solution of oxygen and nutrients through the remnant blood vessels. After four days, they detected contractions in several hearts. In eight days, they had eight hearts beating normally enough to pump fluid out the aorta.
“We just took nature’s own building blocks to build a new organ,” says Ott. Still, “When we saw the first contractions we were speechless.”
As the new hearts developed, the team coaxed them along by stimulating them with electrodes. The electrical signals propagated through the tissue and synchronized the beats. When stimulation was stopped, the hearts continued beating for various periods of time on their own. The best-performing hearts were kept beating for 40 days.
“We don’t know yet, but the heart seems to get stronger over time as we pace it [with electrical stimulation] and increase the delivery of cells,” says Taylor. “We’re confident we can mimic the real heart.”
The rat hearts she and her team created could contract with a force equal to about two percent of adult rat heart function and 25 percent of 16-week fetal human heart function. The next step is to encourage optimal growth at each stage of maturity.
The team is also experimenting with pig hearts, which are about the same size as humans’, and have successfully generated ECMs from them.
Someday, doctors may routinely extract cells from heart failure patients and use them to reseed a new organ from a cadaver-derived ECM. What types of cells those would be isn’t known yet.
“It depends on what cells are best,” says Taylor. “Bone marrow-derived stem cells are already used to treat hearts. It may be a mix of cells from bone marrow, hearts, and skeletal muscle. We’ll use whatever cells we think are going to give us the best shot.”
Surgeons already patch holes in the heart, or areas damaged by heart attacks, with pieces of heart muscle. Patches can be grown in the lab, but it’s hard to get them anywhere near thick enough because of difficulties keeping the tissue oxygenated. The ECM technique, however, has good potential for overcoming this limitation because it uses the original circulatory system to oxygenate the growing hearts.
While the ECM technique can supply heart patches, Taylor says its main application is likely to be in patients who need a whole new heart. With too few donor hearts available, the ECM heart may fill the gap and help patients rid themselves of mechanical assist devices much earlier.
The potential is great, but “commercialization is not our goal,” says Taylor. “It’s getting this to patients safely and effectively.
“I’d like to think that these kinds of innovations will continue to happen at the U because the state realizes that we can change the world of medicine here in Minnesota.”