Tiny hearts that are only one millimetre in diameter could hold the key to curing heart disease.
The hearts, created by scientists at Abertay University, are being used to test treatments for heart hypertrophy, providing new insights on how to combat the disease.
Hypertrophy is the number one cause of sudden death in young people. It can be a hereditary condition, but can also be induced by other diseases like diabetes, or even simply by too much physically demanding exercise.
To develop different treatments, Professor Nikolai Zhelev and his team of scientists from the Scottish university grow the healthy hearts from stem cells.
Next, they chemically create the conditions that trigger hypertrophy. While hearts have been grown in this way in the past, this research marks the first time that scientists have been able to cause disease in them.
As the heart becomes hypertrophic, its cells begin to grow abnormally, enlarging them to the point where the heart can no longer function.
Biosensors track the paths of the molecules within the tiny hearts so that Professor Zhelev can see which ones cause hypertrophic conditions.
Then, he is able to tailor drugs to the specific molecules so that they do follow these same paths, effectively stopping the hypertrophy before it begins.
Professor Zhelev is testing many different drugs with varying levels of success.
Interestingly, a drug originally developed to treat cancer is also having positive results on these miniature hypertrophic hearts.
A number of compounds are still being developed, and those that are most effective will go through even more tests before human patients trial them.
To understand the effects of these drugs more quickly, Professor Zhelev has partnered with Professor Jim Bown, a systems biologist who employs computer modelling and gaming technology in mapping cells.
Professor Bown said the relationship between the hands-on experimentation and computer modelling as a joint effort: “The way this will work is by taking information about how the cells grow from Nikolai initially, building models based on that data and making suggestions to him about which experiments to try out next.”
Thus, researchers can perform fewer physical experiments and still collect data-rich results.
Groundbreaking both for the method of testing these tiny hearts and for the combination of technologies, these promising techniques could someday be used to develop cures for other diseases, too.
Professor Bown has already presented research showing potential for applications in treating cancer, and further research will continue to shed light on how these innovations can both prevent and cure.
Images courtesy of Abertay University