WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
On the one hand being able to grow new human organs on demand will help alleviate transplant issues, on the other it will help accelerate the development and testing of new drugs and treatments.
Recently researchers showed off their mini beating hearts in a jar, which frankly, was as freaky as it was a marvel of science, and their first mini human livers grown from stem cells, and now Michigan State University researchers have created for the first time a “miniature human heart model in the laboratory, complete with all primary heart cell types and a functioning structure of chambers and vascular tissue.” In short, we’ve gone from a stand alone beating heart in a jar to a stand alone beating heart in a lab – with no animal host anywhere to be seen.
“These mini hearts constitute incredibly powerful models in which to study all kinds of cardiac disorders with a degree of precision unseen before,” said Aitor Aguirre, the study’s senior author and assistant professor of biomedical engineering at MSU’s Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering.
This study, “Generation of Heart Organoids Modelling Early Human Cardiac Development Under Defined Conditions,” appears on the bioRxiv preprint server and was funded by grants from the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health where, in the US, heart disease is the number one cause of death.
The human heart organoids, or hHOs for short, were created using a novel stem cell framework, which is like the scaffolding you put up around a building, that mimics the embryonic and foetal developmental environments.
“Organoids – meaning resembling an organ – are self-assembling 3D cell constructs that recapitulate organ properties and structure to a significant extent,” said Yonatan Israeli, a graduate student in the Aguirre Lab and first author of the study.
The experiment used a bio-engineering process that based on pluripotent stem cells – adult cells from a patient that trigger embryonic-like heart development in a dish which produced a functional mini heart in just a few weeks.
See the mini hearts beating
“This process allows the stem cells to develop, basically as they would in an embryo, into the various cell types and structures present in the heart,” Aguirre said. “We give the cells the instructions and they know what they have to do when all the appropriate conditions are met.”
Because the organoids followed the natural cardiac embryonic development process, the researchers were able to study the natural growth of an actual foetal human heart in a dish in real time – a world first.
The technology also allows for the creation of numerous hHOs simultaneously with relative ease, contrasting with existing tissue engineering approaches that are expensive, labour intensive and not particularly scalable.
One of the primary issues facing the study of foetal heart development and congenital heart defects is access to a developing heart. So far researchers have been confined to the use of mammalian models, donated foetal remains, and in vitro cell research to approximate function and development, but now all they’ll need is a dish and some stem cells instead.
“Now we can have the best of both worlds, a precise human model to study these diseases — a tiny human heart — without using fetal material or violating ethical principles. This constitutes a great step forward,” Aguirre said.
What’s next? For Aguirre, the process is twofold. First, the heart organoid represents an unprecedented look into the nuts and bolts of how a fetal heart develops.
“In the lab, we are currently using heart organoids to model congenital heart disease — the most common birth defect in humans affecting nearly 1% of the newborn population,” Aguirre said. “With our heart organoids, we can study the origin of congenital heart disease and find ways to stop it.”
And second, while the hHO is complex, it is far from perfect. For the team, improving the final organoid is another key avenue of future research. “The organoids are small models of the fetal heart with representative functional and structural features,” Israeli said. “They are, however, not as perfect as a human heart yet. That is something we are working toward.”
Aguirre and team are excited about the wide-ranging applicability of these miniature hearts. They enable an unprecedented ability to study many other cardiovascular-related diseases — from chemotherapy-induced cardiotoxicity to the effect of diabetes, during pregnancy, on the developing foetal heart.