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Rodent of the Week: How to mend a broken heart

October 16, 2009 |  1:00 pm

Rodent_of_the_week The promise of stem-cell therapy is that researchers might be able to grow cells into specific tissue or organs that can replace or repair damaged parts. Researchers at Duke reported progress this week in developing a tissue patch that can be used for heart disease.

The scientists used mouse embryonic stem cells to grow a three-dimensional patch made up of heart muscle cells called cardiomyocytes. The tissue was able to contract and to conduct electrical impulses -- just like a real, beating heart. The patch, which looks like a piece of Chex cereal, was grown in biological substances, such as the blood-clotting protein fibrin and helper cells known as cardiac fibroblasts. These substances were crucial in coaxing the cells to grow in an organized manner that allowed them to function.

"When we tested the patch, we found that because the cells aligned themselves in the same direction, they were able to contract like native cells," a coauthor of the study, Brian Liau, said in a news release. "They were also able to carry the electrical signals that make cardiomyocytes function in a coordinated fashion."

More research is needed before heart patches could be used for humans with cardiovascular disease, Liau said. One of the major challenges is establishing a blood vessel supply to sustain the patch. The researchers will also test their model using non-embryonic stem cells. That could speed up the growth of the tissue since a human heart requires nine months for complete development. Moreover, if they could use a patient's own cells, it might prevent an immune system reaction.

The study was presented at the Biomedical Engineering Society annual meeting in Pittsburgh.

-- Shari Roan

Photo courtesy of Advanced Cell Technology Inc.