Bioethics Blogs

Bioengineering: Big Potential in Tiny 3D Heart Chambers

Caption: Heart microchamber generated from human iPS cells; cardiomyocytes (red), myofibroblasts (green), cell nuclei (blue) 
Credit: Zhen Ma, University of California, Berkeley

The adult human heart is about the size of a large fist, divided into four chambers that beat in precise harmony about 100,000 times a day to circulate blood throughout the body. That’s a very dynamic system, and also a very challenging one to study in real-time in the lab. Understanding how the heart forms within developing human embryos is another formidable challenge. So, you can see why researchers are excited by the creation of tiny, 3D heart chambers with the ability to exist (see image above) and even beat (see video below) in a lab dish, or as scientists  say “in vitro.”

iPS heart cells video

Credit: Zhen Ma et al., Nature Communications

To achieve this feat, an NIH-funded team from University of California, Berkeley, and Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, San Francisco turned to human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology. The resulting heart chambers may be miniscule—measuring no more than a couple of hair-widths across—but they hold huge potential for everything from improving understanding of cardiac development to speeding drug toxicity screening.

Let me remind you that iPS cells are derived from genetically reprogrammed skin cells or white blood cells and have the potential to develop into many different types of cells. Scientists have had the recipe for producing cardiac cells from iPS cells for some time. But, as researchers led by Zhen Ma, Kevin Healy, and Bruce Conklin show in the journal Nature Communications [1], it turns out that encouraging those cells to undergo a more complex process akin to early heart development requires not only the right chemistry, but also the right geometry.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.