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"Heart disease-on-a-chip" could usher in an age of personalized medicine

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May 23, 2014

Scientists have created functioning human heart tissue that exhibits Barth syndrome  (Imag...

Scientists have created functioning human heart tissue that exhibits Barth syndrome (Image: Shutterstock)

When we've previously heard about "organs on a chip," they've been miniature recreations of healthy organs. If they're being used for research into the treatment of health problems, however, then it only makes sense that those "organs" should have something wrong with them. With that in mind, a group of Harvard scientists have created the world's first lab-grown sample of functioning human heart tissue that has a cardiovascular disease.

The researchers started by taking skin cells from two patients afflicted with Barth syndrome, an inherited and currently-untreatable heart disorder caused by a mutation of the Tafazzin (or TAZ) gene.

Those cells were converted into stem cells, and then grown on chips that were lined with human extracellular matrix proteins. That environment mimicked conditions in the human heart, causing the cells to join together and form into heart tissue – complete with the TAZ mutations. That tissue contracted but did so quite weakly, just as the heart tissue of a Barth syndrome patient would.

The scientists noted that the mutation caused the tissue to produce excessive amounts of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which is normally released in smaller quantities by the cells' mitochondria. By reducing the ROS production to normal levels via gene replacement therapy, however, they were able to get the diseased tissue to contract like healthy heart tissue.

They now plan on conducting animal trials, to see if a similar approach would work on a living organism. The so-called "heart disease-on-a-chip" is also finding use as a testing platform for various medications. Down the road, it's possible that patients' specific conditions could be recreated on such chips using their own cells, so that treatments could be tried outside of their body without posing any risk to the patients themselves.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Source: Harvard University

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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