The field of heart tissue engineering has made tremendous strides in recent years, as scientists have developed cardiac tissues to replace scarred regions of a patient’s living heart. But Stuart Campbell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Yale, is growing cardiac tissue for a different purpose — diagnosis.
Campbell was recently awarded an Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant by the National Institutes of Health in order to pursue his research. The disease he is interested in is characterized by thickening of the heart muscle. Unfortunately, this symptom does not appear until a later age, and there are few reliable genetic markers for the disease. “You look at this standard panel of nine genes, and for half the families, there’s no hit,” Campbell said.
Instead, he turned to tissue engineering to find an unconventional solution to this diagnostic dilemma.
After successful testing with animal models, Campbell showed that human cells can be used to grow realistic human heart tissue on a new scaffolding that he and his research team have developed. First, human cells are drawn from a blood sample. Then the special scaffolding coaxes these cells into forming an easily manipulated tissue sample. Contractions of the tissue can be viewed under a microscope and analyzed mathematically for abnormalities — diagnosis relies on observing these contraction patterns. “The key design goal here was to make a linear piece of heart tissue that we could grab onto very easily,” Campbell said.
Campbell plans to publish results from his research soon. It is already evident, however, that the cardiac tissues that Campbell is engineering have the potential to be used in medical diagnosis of heart abnormalities. “In the future I hope to be able to take a patient’s blood sample, and in six months come back to them and say, ‘This is our recommendation for your treatment,’” he said.
Cover Image: Recent developments in tissue engineering have shown promise in diverse applications, including tissue repair and, from Campbell’s work, medical diagnosis. Image courtesy of Team Freiburg 2013