I want a heart in a jar

A lab at the University of Minnesota has done something cool: they’ve grown a functioning heart from stem cells. The problem with building complex organs in a lab is that their normal construction required an elaborate context in the developing embryo, something that is impossible to replicate, short of just growing the whole embryo. The Doris Taylor lab did something very clever: they took an adult rat or rabbit heart and stripped it of its cells, leaving behind a scaffold of nonliving connective tissue. Then they recellularized it with stem cells, and they differentiated appropriately to make a new, beating heart.

They’ve got a long way to go yet — the resynthesized hearts only beat with 2% of the strength of the normal adult heart — but it’s a good start.

You can watch a video describing the work. Warning: it does show one dead rat and a guy with a knife, and there are pulsing pink blobs of hearts in glass chambers, so it may not be for everyone.


  1. says

    You can watch a video describing the work. Warning: it does show one dead rat and a guy with a knife, and there are pulsing pink blobs of hearts in glass chambers, so it may not be for everyone

    One of the things that turned me away from the biological sciences was my weak stomach. When my dad was in veterinary school, part of the annual spring celebration (VEISHEA used to be fun) was an exhibit of organs and stuff. About a third of the way through, I had to leave for the petting zoo section, otherwise I’d have fainted.

    Similar thing happened several years later when Dad was docking a puppy poodle’s tail. These folks waited until it required major surgery. There’s a major blood vessel in the tail, so by the time I left–again, to avoid fainting–there was a little pool of blood built up by spurts from the newly severed tail.

  2. Ted Powell says

    “Then they recellularized it with stem cells…”

    No. According to the linked article, “they then repopulated the matrix with fresh heart cells.”

    and according to this article http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/researchers-create-beating-heart-lab-15218.html

    “We used immature heart cells in this version, as a proof of concept. We pretty much figured heart cells in a heart matrix had to work,” Taylor said. “Going forward, our goal is to use a patient’s stem cells to build a new heart.”

    Even for rats and rabbits, use of stem cells has not been reported in either of these articles.

  3. says

    Amazing how art and life imitate eachother. That sounds like something Eyegor would be doing in a lab from an old Boris Karloff movie, pulsating red blobs in jars and all!

  4. says

    I wear my heart on my sleeve.
    It’s harder than you would believe!
    But if it gets lost,
    no matter the cost,
    a new one I might soon receive.

    As I watch it pulsing on the table,
    I think someday they will be able
    to take apart
    and repair my heart
    when my lifestyle has made it unstable.

  5. Flaky says

    “… leaving behind a scaffold of nonliving connective tissue.” Couldn’t artificial material be used for the same purpose? Plastic, ceramic, metal or something? Not so useful, if you need a heart to grow a heart.

  6. says

    No — it’s too intricate and delicate.

    It’s still very useful. Imagine you need a heart transplant. They take the heart from a cadaver, strip it of cells and anything that might generate an immune response, and then they repopulate it with a set of your cells. Now you’ve got a heart that is antigenically 100% you.

    That would be incredibly useful.

  7. Rheinhard says

    Hey – I was at lunch earlier in a restaurant with several TVs and the one with CNN was showing this news! Sound was down but I saw one interviewee identified as being associated with the U. of Minn. and thought “I wonder if PZ will blog about this?”

    But the really relevant question is: “WHOSE heart does PZ want in that jar?” ^_~

  8. says

    But the really relevant question is: “WHOSE heart does PZ want in that jar?”

    How much time is he willing to spend at sea for one day on land?

  9. says

    Here’s a question: what’s the shelf life of a heart ECM, compared to a living heart? I’d have to imagine the ECM would last longer, since there are no cells to keep alive. If that’s the case, then in addition to immune response benefits, might this have the potential to help the heart supply problem? Imagine: if you need a heart, instead of waiting for a donor cadaver to crop up randomly, you could grab an ECM from the shelf and grow a fresh heart made-to-order. And if a donor’s heart isn’t needed (or, more likely, can’t be delivered to a recipient) at time of death, the ECM could still be preserved.

  10. ABR says

    This reminds me of the old Robert Bloch quote (or was it Bradbury?) To paraphrase:

    I have the heart of a 10 year old….it’s in a jar on my desk.

  11. Carlie says

    Several years ago Alan Alda showed a plate full of beating heart cells grown from stem cells on Scientific American Frontiers. I remember thinking how creeeeepy it looked. I can’t wait to see the 3-d version!

  12. truth machine says

    It’s Stephen King, period, wrongly attributed to Bloch: “Some people think that I am a monster. That’s not true. I have the heart of a child. It’s in a jar on my desk.”

  13. truth machine says

    I take it back; King apparently stole it from Bloch, who said “Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”

  14. me says

    Neonatal rat cardiac cells are about the only cells that could probably do this. You couldn’t do this with older rat cardiac cells, with mouse cells, or human cells. Neonatal rat cardiomyocytes are still the gold standard in cardiac myocyte preps in terms of cells that survive in culture and maintain a differentiated phenotype after enzymatic dispersed.

  15. says

    That is pretty amazing, I hope all this technology is “fully” developed (I am not sure if fully is a good word but I will let it slide) by the time my organs start failing.

  16. HP says

    Think’st thou not I be
    Some craven thing yet,
    And monstrous above all.
    For I the heart have
    Of a gladsome youth,
    In a silvern casque
    Upon my writing-table.

    –Sir Francis Bacon, Collected Works (attr. W. Shakespeare)


    Two reactions re. the video: 1) This is really exciting stuff. 2) It would be cool if someone made a new mad-scientist movie, but with modern lab equipment instead of those cheesy Erlenmeyer flasks full of water mixed with food coloring.

  17. freelunch says

    Yes, Marcus (#4), I, too, responded as you did. How could they not have an Igor on their team (preferably one who had engaged in a number of successful self-surgeries). Doris and Harald just aren’t the right names for such wonderful research.

  18. ABR says

    HP, didn’t you mean to say “Christopher Marlowe, Collected Works (attr. W. Shakespeare)”?

    [runneth and ducketh anon]

  19. craig says

    “I hope all this technology is “fully” developed (I am not sure if fully is a good word but I will let it slide) by the time my organs start failing.”

    Why – are you a multi-millionaire?

  20. Gary F says

    This is interesting. I wonder if it may eventually become possible to build the extracellular matrix, without the need for a heart to begin with. While the reduction of the odds of rejection sounds like a great benefit, I wonder if hearts will be more likely to work if they are transplanted in the way that doctors use today. Maybe it takes several tries to get this operation right, so hearts could end up being wasted.

  21. says

    Here in NZ this was reported as if it would make the shortage of donor organs a thing of the past. But as it stands, they still need a donor organ to provide the matrix for repopulation with immature heart cells. So you’d still be relying on people indicating their wish to donate after death; things would just be freed up a bit because you wouldn’t have to worry about MHC compatibility. Oh, for some science journalists who don’t go for hyperbole every time!

  22. says

    I’m new at this game,
    And I don’t know your name,
    But I love you, whoever you are;
    My heart may be true
    But it’s also brand new
    I grew it myself, in a jar!
    I can feel my heart grow,
    So I love you, you know,
    And not like a cousin or brother;
    I will give you my heart–
    Every bit, every part;
    If you break it, I’ll grow me another.

  23. says

    Wow. The video is in-effing-credible. I became incredibly excited watching this. In principle, if we can untangle the developmental cues, any tissue could be grown in the appropriate matrix. Cardiovascular disease most heavily leverages the arteries that supply blood to the heart itself. This could be more than useful. Those who could afford the investment could add 25-30 years to their life expectancy by planning ahead and growing a new heart.

  24. csrster says

    If one could use connective tissue from a non-human heart as a substrate then we would be a lot closer to solving the organ donor problem.

  25. truth machine says

    showoff! *stomp* *stomp* *stomp*

    If I had such a gift I would show it off too, I’m grateful to those who do, and I demand nothing more of them.

    I won’t shed any tears over that ungrateful wretch late departed to the dungeon choking on his sour grapes.

  26. Nix says

    The UK’s awful free paper _The Metro_ described this as `scientists bring dead heart back to life’. Uh, not quite. :/