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Research team creates beating heart in the lab

Using a process called whole-organ decellularization, a team led by Doris Taylor, Ph.D., created two beating animal hearts in the laboratory.

By using a process called whole-organ decellularization, scientists at the University’s Center for Cardiovascular Repair grew functioning heart tissue by taking dead rat and pig hearts and reseeding them with a mixture of live cells.

The researchers hope that this process can be used someday to make new donor organs for humans, says principal investigator Doris A. Taylor, Ph.D., a professor of medicine and physiology at the University.

“The idea would be to develop transplantable blood vessels or whole organs made from your own cells,” says Taylor, who also directs the Center for Cardiovascular Repair and holds the Medtronic Bakken Chair in Cardiovascular Repair.

Because a new heart could be filled with a transplant recipient’s own cells, researchers believe it’s much less likely that the body would reject it. And once placed in the recipient, in theory, the heart would be nourished, regulated, and regenerated in much the same way as the heart it replaced.

Decellularization is the removal of all cells from an organ—in this case, an animal cadaver heart—leaving intact only the extracellular matrix, the heart’s “scaffolding” or framework between the cells.

After removing all of the cells from rat and pig hearts, University researchers injected the organs with live heart cells from neonatal or newborn rats. Four days after seeding the decellularized hearts, researchers noticed contractions in both organs. Eight days later, the hearts were pumping.

“We just took nature’s own building blocks to build a new organ,” says Harald C. Ott, M.D., co-investigator of the study and a former University research associate who now works at Massachusetts General Hospital. “When we saw the first contractions, we were speechless.”

The study was published online in the January 13 issue of Nature Medicine. For more on this research, see “At the heart of innovation.”

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