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Electric stimulation could regulate beating of heart cells


Electrical stimulation of human heart muscle cells engineered from stem cells aids their development and function, Columbia Engineering researchers have shown.

The team, led by The Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Medical Sciences Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, used electrical signals mimicking those in a healthy heart, to regulate and synchronise the beating properties of cardiomyocytes – the cells that support the beating function of the heart.

Cardiovascular disease is a major health problem because the heart cannot repair itself; if cardiomyocytes are damaged or lost due to injury or more commonly by disease, they have very limited ability to regenerate.

Scientists have been searching for ways to regenerate hearts using cardiomyocytes grown from apatient’s skin or blood cells, and to be successful these need to respond to and integrate with the surrounding heart muscle.

At present, the immaturity and subsequent irregular beating of human cardiomyocytes grown from stem cells has limited how useful they are to regenerative medicine and biological research, but this study, published in natural science research journal Nature Communications, could change that.

While the stem cells used to grow the human cardiomyocytes used in this study were from the skin and blood of donors, the least painful and invasive way of harvesting stem cells is from naturally shed teeth.The best stem cells are those taken from baby teeth, as their quality will not have been eroded by age or pollution.

A perfect match is required for stem cell treatment to avoid the risk of the patient’s body rejecting donated cells and having to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of their life.

The electrical stimulation was used by the researchers to mature the cells, regulate their contractile function and improve their ability to connect with one another and, training them to adopt the beating pattern of the heart, improving the organisation of important cardiac proteins and helping them to become more adult.

“This preconditioning is an important step to generating robust cells that are useful for a wide range of applications including the study of cardiomyocyte biology, drug testing, and stem cell therapy,” said Vunjak-Novakovic.