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Carbon Nanotubes Make it Possible to Grow Human Hearts

Posted February 16, 2013 4:41 PM

From ExtremeTech:

One of the most fundamental problems with growing organs in a petri dish (metaphorically speaking) is that organs don't grow in petri dishes. That is to say, the naturally grown organs we'd like to replace were themselves grown in and amongst organs, which were themselves grown in and amongst others.

This nature-nurture dichotomy highlights how much our genes rely on environmental constants for their mechanisms of action; all the fancy collagens in the world can't anchor a cell to a basement membrane that isn't there. Time and again we've seen admirable work in cell biology undone by the simple fact that these meticulously engineered cells are without the proper world in which to grow, and some organs have posed more problems than others. A bladder is a relatively simple thing, just a balloon with a couple of special openings. A heart, on the other hand, needs significantly more nurturing to grow up big and strong, precise enough to replace the body-grown version from which it was cloned. This week, the American Chemical Society's journal Nano printed an article detailing the use of carbon nanotubes in a growth scaffold for rat heart cells. The result? The closest we've come to creating a beating heart on demand.

Heart cells share many of the problems of neurons, from a research perspective; they are woefully inept at directing their own growth through space, requiring virtually every effort be made on their behalf, and even when led to the right place require all sorts of special genetic and chemical allowances. It was once thought impossible to regrow neurons, but lately we've come to realize that it's just very, very finicky. Not the least of the reasons for this is conductivity; neurons cannot work unless they somehow come to meet one another such that an electrical signal can propagate between them. Heart cells are much the same - a cluster of so-called pacemaker cells keeps the whole thing contracting as one. This requires not just that the pacemaker signal pass between the cells, but that it happens fast enough for the heart to act seemingly as one coordinated unit.

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