The new platform engineered for lab-grown heart cells

U of T Engineering research team lead, Professor Milica Radisic with a microfluidic device.
U of T Engineering research team lead, Professor Milica Radisic with a microfluidic device. ©Tristan McGuirk

Heart cells need exercise even when growing outside the human body. The University of Toronto Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering has designed a new platform with a rigorous training regimen.

The platform grows small amounts of cardiac tissue and measures the strength of the beats of the heart cells. This is ideal to test the effects of potential drug molecules, and could help to develop personalised medicine in the future.

Testing potential drug molecules

Professor Milica Radisic, the leader of the research team, said: “Many potential new drugs fail because of toxicity issues, and cardiac toxicity is a major challenge. You can test potential drugs on heart cells grown in a petri dish, but those cells don’t look the same as the cells in a real heart, and you can’t get much information about their actual cardiac function.”

The new platform

The research team created a platform called the Biowire five years ago. Heart cells grow around a silk suture in this platform. The platform pulses electricity through the cells which causes them to elongate and mature like human heart cells. The new platform they have described in the latest paper is called Biowire II.

Biowire II uses heart cells in between two elastic polymer wires three millimetres apart. Every time the heart cells contract, the wires become bent. By measuring the amount that the wires are bent by, the researchers determine the contraction of the cells.

Yimu Zhao, a PhD candidate in Radisic’s lab and the lead author on the paper, added: “The advantage of this system is that it tells us how a given drug molecule is affecting the cardiac output by examining forces of contraction and other key functional readouts. Does it weaken the heart or make it stronger? It will help find new drugs to treat heart conditions, but also eliminate drugs for other conditions that have adverse effects on the heart.”

What are the potential applications?

Radisic commented: “If our lab-grown tissues can keep dangerous drugs out of the pipeline and help find new drugs to treat heart conditions, it will save thousands of lives.”

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