Scottish scientists have grown miniature hearts to treat disease

Here’s something cute and potentially life-saving that also sounds just a little bit creepy, especially if you’re a Margaret Atwood fan: scientists at Abertay University in Scotland have grown thousands of miniature hearts for medical research. Yes, thousands. The tiny tickers were grown from stem cells and measure 1mm across. They beat together in a dish every two seconds (which wouldn’t make me jump in the slightest).

This isn’t the first time miniature hearts have been created, but it is the first time they have been successfully used for research. These scientists are working to find a cure for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It’s a condition where the heart becomes enlarged, which makes it harder to pump blood and can cause the heart to stop beating. It can be hereditary or triggered by illnesses (including diabetes) or over-exercising. In some cases, it causes an abnormal heart rhythm, which is the biggest cause of sudden death in young people.

The team at Abertay induced hypertrophy in their little hearts, and is testing different drug combinations to see what might help. While some have caused the hearts to stop beating altogether, others have shown signs of improvement. They’ve had particular success with a new cancer drug that’s still in the development stages. Although heart cells cannot be affected by cancer, the movement of the molecules in hypertrophic hearts is similar to the movement of the molecules in cancerous cells. Further testing is needed, but lead researcher Professor Nikolai Zhelev, who is presenting the results this week at the World Congress on Biotechnology in Valencia, told the BBC he was ‘extremely hopeful’ that it will be possible to prevent hypertrophy in future.

That’s great news not only for patients, but for animals, too. It’s much easier to run large-scale tests on lab-grown organs, and the results will better match human body chemistry, so if this kind of research becomes more widespread, it should one day mean an end to animal testing. The main thing I’m taking from this news though is that if heart-growing technology is going to become more widespread, I can think of a few politicians who should be first in line.

Image via University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley