Science Is Thiiis Close To Growing Human Hearts In A Lab

Of the more than 4,000 people in the U.S. waiting for a heart transplant, only about 2,500 will get one this year. Even among those lucky few, however, many of the patients' bodies will attack the foreign cells within them and reject the transplant. It's clear that we need a better way, and medical researchers have been hard at work trying to find one. The dream is to figure out a way to grow whole, beating human hearts from a patient's own cells, and in 2016, scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School got the closest we've ever come to that goal.

Related: The "Heart In A Box" Device Is Revolutionizing Transplants

From Ghost Heart To Living Heart

Here's how they did it: after collecting 73 donor hearts that had been deemed unfit for transplantation, the scientists used a detergent solution to wash away almost all of the hearts' cells. What they were left with was a milky-white, heart-shaped scaffold of protein called an "extracellular matrix"—an eerie object that looks right out of the HBO show Westworld. Next, they used messenger RNA to reprogram human skin cells to become pluripotent stem cells—a kind of master cell that can turn into any cell in the body—which they then turned into heart cells. They added those cells to the left ventricular wall of each heart matrix, then mounted the hearts in a specially developed bioreactor that mimicked the conditions of the human body while feeding the cells a steady diet of nutrients. After two weeks, they checked on their project. The new tissue looked just like that of immature human hearts. Even better, when the scientists gave the hearts a jolt of electricity, they started beating.

Related: Here's Why You Never Hear About Heart Cancer

What This Means

Heart tissue has been grown in a lab before, but this is the first time we've regenerated heart tissue from pluripotent stem cells in an extracellular matrix like this. The technique means big things: instead of a patient accepting a donor heart and risking transplant rejection, doctors can grow the patient a new heart from his or her own cells and vastly cut down on the rejection risk.

Related: Bone-Marrow Transplant Recipients Have Two Sets of DNA

So how close are we from this end goal? Lead author Jacques Guyette says it's still several years away. Right now, however, the ability to generate heart tissue in a lab can be great for people who just need a little help—those with heart damage from a heart attack, for instance.

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Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Videos About Stem Cell Technology

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Though the DNA in all of your body's cells is the same, different cells express different genes. 00:39

  2. Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can produce specialized cells in a process called differentiation. 01:06

  3. Embryonic stem cells are gathered from donated eggs at in vitro fertilization clinics. 02:22

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Written by Ashley Hamer January 8, 2017

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