Researchers Grow and Harden Hearts for Science

Researchers at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland are doing something groundbreaking for what is, at present, an incurable heart condition. According to the BBC, the researchers are growing hearts. The small, spherical collections of heart cells, which are grown from stem cells, can be seen beating beneath a microscope. The researchers are using their creations to conduct a breakthrough study of Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Among other debilitating consequences, the disease is a regular cause of sudden cardiac death.


The condition the researchers have set out to study is a disease of the heart muscle. The genetic disease arises from a mistake in an individual’s genetic code. HCM develops from incorrectly grown heart cells which are responsible for a variety of physical symptoms. Some of the physical ramifications may include a thickening of the heart muscle, abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia), and sudden stoppage of the heart. HCM is probably best known for its shocking appearance among young and exceptionally fit athletes. For example, many were first introduced to HCM when famed UK soccer player Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the field during a game. While treatments do exist to reduce the risk of developing symptoms and to help relieve symptoms, no cure has yet been developed. Professor Nikolai Zhelev, the lead researcher on the project, seeks to fill that void.

Novel Approach

As strange as it might sound, this is not the first time researchers have grown beating heart tissue in a dish, nor is it the first time the little beating groups of cells have been used to understand HCM. In 2010, researchers at Mount Sinai hospital did just that by differentiating human stem cells to become human heart cells with cardiomyopathy. Yet, the exciting aspect of the Abertay University research isn’t the strange little hearts; it’s what the researchers are doing with them. By, in effect, having 1,000 human hearts before them in the lab, researchers can rapidly screen a variety of chemicals to evaluate what might be a successful cure. Traditional treatment testing requires animals and is subsequently a dramatically slower process. With the ability to test at a rapid pace, researchers have reason to believe a successful cure could be on the horizon.

Similar Studies

Stem cells have played a significant role in the past when it comes to understanding HCM. In 2013, Stanford Medicine reported that its researchers used stem cells to determine, on a cellular level, what is happening in the heart of a patient with HCM. The researchers created stem cells from skin samples taken from 10 members of a family, some of whom had the HCM mutation. The researchers generated heart cells from the stem cells and used them to compare the cells from family members with the mutation to the cells from family members without it. The researchers discovered that at around the 30 to 40 day mark, the cells from the family members with HCM began to beat at abnormal rhythms and showed elevated calcium levels. Calcium, at normal levels, is an important component of the processes which make the heart beat. However, elevated levels of calcium can be problematic and had been hypothesized as a potential contributing cause of HCM. Prior to the Stanford Medicine research, there was no definitive indicator of calcium’s role in HCM.

The Future

HCM is a devastating condition that leaves those with the disease at a significant risk of cardiac arrest and sudden death. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the HHS National Institutes of Health (NIH) both know the stakes. The CDC regularly reports news on the disease and the two organizations have joined forces to create a registry to report instances of sudden cardiac death in young people. Yet, those with HCM need more than awareness, they need a cure. Despite the grim reality HCM brings to the lives of those it affects, somewhere in a lab in Scotland, there is hope. Professor Nikolai Zhelev and his researchers are hitting the ground running and employing extraordinary new methods to tackle the disease. The question the research raises now is not if a cure will be found, but when.