Bioengineers in California have developed a system that mimics the physiology of the human heart. Dubbed a heart-on-a-chip, the device promises to be a powerful new tool in testing new heart drugs and laying the groundwork towards personalizing treatments for patients using their own cells. Ben Gruber reports.
STORY: These are human heart muscle cells beating, but this video wasn't taken inside a heart. It was captured using a microscope at the University of California Berkeley where, for the first time, bio-engineers have developed a system that allows human heart cells to function outside the body. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ANURAG MATHUR, POST DOCTORAL FELLOW AND RESEARCHER, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA BERKELEY, SAYING: "It is the first demonstration of an actual human heart which is based in a system that is mimicking the physiology as close as possible." That is Anurag Mathur, one of the principle scientists leading the research. He says that by mimicking human physiology, the device could provide a new and powerful tool for drug development. Kevin Healy, a professor of bioengineering, calls the device a heart-on-a-chip. He says the system is comprised of cell layers derived from IPS stem cells that form heart tissue which is housed on a small slab of silicon. To keep the cells beating, micro-fluidic channels thinner than a human hair nurture the cells and also provide a way to deliver drugs to them for testing. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KEVIN HEALY, PROFESSOR OF BIOENGINEERING AND MATERIAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA BERKELEY, SAYING: "These are mock blood vessels they are similar to blood vessels. The fluid that we are interested in comes across this tissue and then it bathes it with the drug." (SOUNDBITE) (English) KEVIN HEALY, PROFESSOR OF BIOENGINEERING AND MATERIAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA BERKELEY, SAYING: "We give it caffeine, heart-on-a-chip beats and accelerates its heart rate. We give it adrenalin it accelerates its heart rate." The scientists can analyze the effect different drugs have on the cells. Currently, pharmaceutical companies spend billions testing new drugs on animal models that more often than not fail in predicting if new drugs are toxic to humans.The heart chip could revolutionize drug screening by providing a tool that can be modified to model human diseases using human cells to test new drugs. The research is still in its infancy, but Healy says it potential is enormous. Healy imagines a day where these devices give doctors a tool to use a patient's cells to personalize a treatment plan. For now Anarug Mathur is enjoying his success and remembers many sleepless nights achieving it. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ANURAG MATHUR, POST DOCTORAL FELLOW AND RESEARCHER, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA BERKELEY, SAYING: "There were days when I used to feel very sad as to why it was not working and I even had problems sleeping or even getting heart cells and devices in my dreams." But those dreams ultimately came true, and a powerful new tool in medicine has been created.