CONDITIONS A-Z

Researchers Growing Human Hearts in Laboratories

Human_Hearts_Grown_In_LabHuman hearts are growing in laboratories... and could soon begin beating.

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but according to regenerative medicine expert Dr. Doris Taylor, University of Minnesota Minneapolis, “The hearts are growing, and we hope they will show signs of beating within the next weeks.”

Although the intriguing research is still in its early stages, the use of stem cells to grow hearts and other organs may change the way we handle organ transplants, offering new hope to millions of potential transplant patients around the world.

Currently, patients who receive transplanted organs must take anti-rejection medications for the rest of their lives. Using that patient's own stem cells would significantly reduce the incidence of organ rejection.

Researchers removed muscle cells from donor organs, leaving the protein skeleton, or “ghost heart,” behind. Using the body's immature 'master cells,' which can morph into a variety of tissue types, researchers injected the stem cells into the structure. Those cells then multiplied, later turning into healthy heart cells.

“There are many hurdles to overcome to generate a fully functioning heart,” cautions Dr. Taylor. “But my prediction is that it may one day be possible to grow entire organs for transplant.”

This is not the first time a human heart has been grown in a lab. Researchers in Britain used bone marrow stem cells to create a human heart in 2007. In 2008, scientists were successful in growing a beating animal heart. Dr. Taylor and her team had previously created pig and rat hearts with a weak heartbeat – too weak to actually pump blood.

These are but the first tentative steps toward developing organs that may eventually be tailor-made to individual patients and safely transplanted. There will likely be much trial and error before scientists create a heart capable of beating strongly enough – and steadily enough – to actually pump blood.

If doctors are successful with hearts, kidneys, lungs, and livers are sure to follow.

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