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Lab Grown "Mini Hearts" Help Battle Heart Disease

Jun 27, 2014 06:08 PM EDT
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(Photo : Wiki CC0 - Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe, MD, cardiologist )

Researchers have been testing how heart disease affects the heart for a long time. However, this kind of observation was only done in animals and a few human patients. Now, researchers have developed a way to make countless mini-hearts for testing, allowing them to study the disease to their own hearts' content.

Scientists at Abertay University announced this week that they had successfully crafted miniature human hearts about one millimeter in diameter that behave "surprisingly similarly" to a real full-sized heart.

The researchers grew these hearts in a lab using encouraged adult stem cells extracted from healthy human hearts, according to an Abertay University press release announcing the preliminary findings of their achievement.

Unlike the controversial embryonic stem cell, adult stem cells can generally only form cell tissue associated with the organ that it was extracted from. Lab grown organs also carry the genetic information of the cells they were grown from, and the structure of this organ may not be 100 percent precise - leading to a high risk of organ rejection if used in transplants.

However, serving as models for scientific study, these organs pose no such risk.

Once grown, the researchers infused the hearts with chemicals that cause the growth of abnormal cells called cardiomyocytes - inducing the type of heart disease called ventricular hypertrophy. Hypertrophic hearts are characterized by a stiffness of the heat muscles, making it more difficult for blood to pump.

Nikolai Zhelev, professor of the research group explained in a statement that studying these perfected mini heart disease models has already revealed some encouraging findings.

"Although heart cells are the only ones in the body that will never get cancer, we noticed that the pathways the molecules in hypertrophic hearts follow are similar to those followed by molecules in cancerous cells," he said. "We thought testing this new drug on these hearts might have the same positive effect., and this has certainly proved to be the case."

Knowing this, the researchers have started testing certain cancer drugs and compounds involved in cancer treatments that could likewise treat heart disease.

Zhelev says that once the team has identified enough helpful compounds, they will step away from the mini-hearts to begin human trials.

"Although there is still a long way to go before the drugs become available commercially, we are extremely hopeful that we will one day be able to stop heart hypertrophy from developing in those at risk of the disease," he said.

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