Researchers revive rat heart

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Scientists have used new techniques to create a beating heart in the laboratory, creating another opportunity to justify laughing maniacally and cackling, “It’s aliiiiiive!”

Research conducted by the Center for Cardiovascular Repair at the University of Minnesota has accomplished something straight out of a science fiction story, with potential application in the medical field.

By forcing a solution of detergent and water into the heart of a dead rat, researchers were able to strip the organ of all its cells, leaving behind the a-cellular matrix" a whitish, rubbery looking shell.

Scientists then used a prepared culture of unspecialized stem cells taken from newborn rat pups and injected it into the matrix. The heart was squeezed mechanically and stimulated by a pacemaker device until the cells were conditioned to maintain rhythm independently. The process is called hole organ recellularization.

This is the first time a three-dimensional heart has been brought to life.

Stefan Kren, an associate researcher at the center, said Harold Ott, also an associate researcher at the center, was the originator of the concept and the first to see the rat heart beat on its own.

“I think he was probably dumbfounded the first time he saw it work,” Kren said.

Frank Markel, president and chief executive officer of The Trillium Gift of Life Network, was elated with the new research.

“It’s a huge breakthrough,” he added, “I never thought I would see the day that I would be reading a newspaper story about a heart that’s been built from stem cells.”

Kren hoped someday this could be applied to humans with heart disease or defects. “It’s our long range goal that an entire replacement heart could be reproduced.” But he added this could take at least 10 years since there are still many obstacles to overcome.

“Three years ago, if you asked me how long it would have taken to get where we are now, I would have said 10 years too. We’ll see,” Kren said.

The findings could be used for other medical applications in the meantime, such as repairing and grafting damaged pieces of the heart and its muscle walls.

Dr. Arnold Malcolm, a professor at Western, cardiologist in University hospital and chair of the Canadian Heart Failure network said the new development might give hope to other scientists in the field.

“I think there will be a mushroom effect where there will be more laboratories that will get interested in this again,” he said.

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