East Lansing, MI — Researchers at Michigan State University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) have made a groundbreaking leap in medical science with a new publication in Nature Communications. Led by Dr. Aitor Aguirre, associate professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Brett Volmert, Biomedical Engineering PhD candidate, the study details the creation and use of miniature heart structures, called organoids, that closely mimic the development of human hearts outside the body.

Researchers in the lab, located at the Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering at MSU, worked to recreate the conditions of a developing baby in the womb by introducing substances that naturally occur during pregnancy. The resulting heart organoids resemble the hearts of embryos at the corresponding stage of development and can replicate various aspects of heart development, forming different heart chambers and structures.

“Right now, these are mini hearts, and we are using them as disease models to understand cardiovascular health conditions, develop treatments, and in precision medicine to mimic an individual’s heart in a dish to improve drug safety,” explained Dr. Aguirre. “This approach will become more and more sophisticated over time until we can manufacture full human hearts for transplants, sometime in the future.”

This new method is a significant step forward in creating fully synthetic human hearts, and provides a useful tool for studying and understanding heart diseases and advancing health and medicine in several crucial areas:

Disease modeling: Heart organoids enable scientists to create miniature versions of human hearts in a lab, offering a powerful tool to study and understand various heart diseases.

Drug testing and development: These organoids provide a more human-relevant system for testing the safety and efficacy of drugs, improving the success rate of drug development for heart-related conditions.

Understanding developmental processes: Studying heart organoids provides insights into the normal development of the heart, crucial for understanding congenital heart defects and potential interventions.

Regenerative and precision medicine: Heart organoids hold the potential to contribute to regenerative medicine by providing a source of cells or tissues for repairing damaged hearts. From a precision medicine perspective, personalized organoids could ensure better matches for individual patients, reducing the risk of organ rejection.

Early detection and prevention: By replicating the early stages of heart development, scientists may identify markers of potential heart problems, enabling early detection and prevention of cardiovascular diseases.

Understanding drug-induced effects during pregnancy: Heart organoids can be used to investigate the potential effects of drugs on fetal heart development, ensuring the safety of medications prescribed to pregnant women.

In one example, researchers in Dr. Aguirre’s lab used these organoids to study the effects of a drug commonly prescribed to pregnant women, ondansetron, which has been linked to heart defects in babies.

“The general prevalence of cardiovascular problems and the lack of understanding and treatments for congenital defects affecting children, coupled with the immense potential stem cells offer to build synthetic human organs, can change the way we understand cardiovascular medicine forever,” said Dr. Aguirre.

While these technologies are still in their early stages, this research signifies a remarkable stride toward revolutionizing our understanding of heart development, disease processes, and drug responses. Further research is essential to realize their full potential and ensure their safe and ethical application in medical practice.

The full publication is available now in Nature Communications.