Researchers at the University of Minnesota have successfully built a safer heart in the lab

Tissue engineering is a big business, and for good reasons -- vat grown tissue and organs could be used to save lives of trauma patients, or simply those in need of new organs due to various circumstances. Growing tissue in labs isn't a new science, it's been going on for years, and we've even seen researchers trying to grow "human" organs in animals.

The science does continue to evolve however. Researchers at the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair took another step in cell progenerated organ growth, growing a beating heart in a laboratory.

The process used by the UMN team is called "whole organ decellularization." A donor heart from a cadaver -- pigs and rats were used in the research -- is decellularized, which is the process of removing all of the cells from the organ. This leaves only an extracellular matrix, or the framework between the living cells of the heart.

Once the dead cells had been removed, the researches added a mixture of progenitor cells to the empty scaffolding and let it grow in sterile lab conditions. The cells used to seed the structure were gathered from the hearts of newborn and neonatal rats. In only four days, the scientists were able to observe contractions in the new hearts and after eight days the hearts were pumping away.

"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. Going forward, our goal is to use a patient's stem cells to build a new heart," explained Doris Taylor, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cardiovascular Repair, Medtronic Bakken professor of medicine and physiology, and principal investigator of the research.

Stem cells would make for a more ideal approach where human transplants are concerned as the risk for rejection and subsequent immunosuppression, which can wreak as much or more havoc on a human body as the failing organ may have, are theoretically much lower since the replacement organ would be grown from the donor's own cells. Not only could these organs mitigate the threat of rejection, but if the body recognizes the new organ as its own, it would be cared for like the original.

Taylor hopes that their research in the decullarization process will lead to more organs being able to be rebuilt for patients. "It opens a door to this notion that you can make any organ: kidney, liver, lung, pancreas -- you name it and we hope we can make it."

Nearly 50,000 people in the United States die yearly while waiting for a suitable donor heart.

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