bioprinted Heart grown from stem cells

Company wants to bioprint new beating hearts to replace our diseased ones

Summary:  A startup wants to develop bioprinted beating hearts using stem cells from a patient’s own body using a special 3D bioprinter. [This article first appeared on LongevityFacts. Author: Brady Hartman. ]

A startup called BioLife4D wants to develop bioprinted beating hearts using a patient’s own cells as a potential solution for patients seeking heart transplants.

As first reported on USAToday, Steven Morris, the CEO founding partner and of BioLife4D says that if the bioprinted heart is successful, the company hopes to expand to other organs including the pancreas or the kidneys,

“We’re literally at the precipice of human history where all of these things are finally possible,” Morris told USAToday, adding “We’re really going to focus on the heart to begin with,” adding “The main reason is the scope and scale is so incredible.”

The process of bioprinting a human heart starts with a blood sample and an MRI scan of the patient’s heart. Technicians convert the blood cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The stem cells are then transformed into heart precursor cells which are then fed into the bioprinter. Morris said creating a heart using a patient’s own cells decreases the chances that a patient would reject the organ.

To create the bioink, these cells are converted to heart cells and are mixed with growth material and nutrients. The resulting bioink is loaded into a 3d bioprinter, a highly specialized printer that uses measurements from the MRI  to print a replacement heart one layer at a time. Since the cells aren’t fused together yet, a support scaffolding is printed with each layer to hold them in place. When the printing process is complete, technicians move the printed heart into a bioreactor which mimics the conditions within the human body. The heart stays in the bioreactor to mature, and the cells self-organize into groups of living tissue and begin to beat in unison. Once the heart is ready, technicians dissolve the scaffolding, leaving behind a living, beating human heart. Guided by the MRI and printed with a patient’s cells, it would be a good fit and an exact genetic match.

Many Organs, Few Donors

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, surpassing the annual death rate of all types of cancer combined.  Heart disease causes one in four deaths in the US alone, claiming over 600,000 lives every year.  But it doesn’t have to be this way, as heart transplants could prevent a proportion of those deaths. However, only about 5,000 heart transplants occur worldwide each year, due to the lack of suitable organs for transplantation and the complications involved.

The bioprinted heart would go a long way to solving a critical shortage of donor’s hearts. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), a Federal Agency that tracks those on waitlists for organs, as of today, there are over 3,990 patients in the United States alone who are on the waiting list for a heart transplant. However, that number grossly underestimates the people who could be saved who could be saved by a heart transplant, and some estimate that heart transplants could save more than ten times that number. Patients wait nearly five months, on average, for a donor’s heart.  More than 25 percent of the waitlist does not live long enough to receive the transplant, reports the Cleveland Clinic.   Not enough organs are available for a transplant because only a fraction of those who could donate organs actually do.

Lab-Grown Hearts

Scientists have been working on lab-grown hearts for years. For example, in 2013 researchers at the University of Pittsburgh grew a beating heart in the laboratory using stem cells. A team led by Lei Yang extracted human skin cells, then transformed them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Yang’s team then used these stem cells to create precursor heart cells, which they attach to a scaffold. The precursor cells developed into heart muscle, and after nearly three weeks of blood supply the reconstructed primitive heart “began contracting again at the rate of 40 to 50 beats per minute,” said the University of Pittsburgh researchers in a statement.

Lab-Grown Organs

The idea for a bioprinted heart is not far-fetched, as researchers have created many types of organ tissues, including pancreatic, kidney, lung and liver tissue. For example, researchers at a company called ViaCyte have grown a kind of pancreas-in-a-box using stem cells. While not a fully grown pancreas, it contains pancreatic tissues that produce insulin.  In another example, researchers in the UK recently used stem cells to create functioning mini-kidneys that create urine. And also recently, a team in China regenerated a part of patient’s lungs by transplanting lung stem cells into the patients. These stems cells developed into new lung structures, including bronchi and alveoli, regrowing and repairing injured lung tissue in a small trial.

A major hurdle to these lab-grown organs is blood supply. While the mini-kidneys developed tiny capillaries, they failed to develop arteries that feed a major organ. Solving the blood supply problem is a major obstacle that needs to be overcome before bioprinting fully-grown organs such as a kidney, liver or heart.

Bottom Line

While the BioLife4D approach sounds exciting, the technology is in the earliest stages. The technology platform needs to be developed and proven in several phases of clinical trials before it could be marketed to patients. On the other hand, using stem cells to create heart patches that repair damaged heart tissue seems much closer to reality.

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Cover Photo: BioLife4D

Brett Molina. “This startup wants to create a 3D-printed heart.” USA TODAY. Feb. 21, 2018


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