The Human Heart

Photo by Garrett Ammon

With turn-of-the-century sci-fi films pushing the envelope on unbelievable futuristic breakthroughs in medical history, Doris Taylor lives this phenomenon every day. As director of regenerative medicine research at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, many have dubbed her Dr. Frankenstein. “It was actually one of the bigger compliments I’ve gotten,” she says, clearly demonstrating that these movie-magic imaginations have truly become a reality. On a regular basis, Taylor harvests organs such as hearts and lungs from the recently deceased in the attempt to bring the cells back to life in order to provide life-giving qualities through regeneration. Basically, researchers have found a way to make heart transplants and other organ demands possible.

The Heart Makers

Taylor endeavors to harvest new organs in their entirety with the end goal of successful transplants that the recipient’s immune system will not reject. In its simplicity, the cells are extracted from the dead organ and the protein scaffold that is left is repopulated with stem cells that match its recipient. Fascinatingly enough, the organ does not even have to come from a human. Given its simplistic nature, this new strategy could boost growth for recovery centers like 12 Palms Recovery Center.

Typically, new medical advancements such as organ harvesting, present immense challenges that researchers continuously strive to develop the perfect solution for sustainability. There has been recent success, however, with hollow, simple organs such as tracheas and bladders that researchers grow and transplant. Yet, complex organs like kidneys, lungs and hearts that require developing networks of blood vessels to remain alive, also demand numerous cell types placed in just the right position.

Some additional factors that researchers need to keep in account as they bio-engineer organs:

  •  ability to grow and develop in young recipients
  • ability to repair themselves
  • must be kept sterile
  • must work for the recipients’ lifetime

The heart alone presents numerous challenges when considering regeneration:

  • the heart is the third most needed organ following the kidney and corneas
  • only 3,500 patients are provided a heart transplant each year
  • donor hearts are a rarity from stress placed on this organ during resuscitation efforts  and disease so it’s difficult to keep a surplus
  • the heart consistently needs to pump approx. 7,000 litres of blood per day
  • the heart consists of cardiomyocytes (different specialized muslces) for chambers and valves (hard to reproduce)

Despite these obstacles, Taylor is optimistic in overcoming the above challenges in tissue engineering. “I think it’s eminently doable, but I don’t think it’s simple” she says after reflecting on the success of her first experiments in building rat hearts. Researcher and surgeon, Alejandro Soto-Gutiérrez, from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, remains confident that attempting to bioengineer complex organs and possibly failing could still lead to later success and growth of knowledge. “Besides the dream of making organs for transplantation, there are a lot of things we can learn from these systems.”

Ultimately, researchers can extend their knowledge about the human heart and its cell organization, thus allowing surgeons to be able to repair and replace complex organs and aid in our transplant needs. So, Mary Shelley’s imaginative work of fiction about bringing the dead back to life with Frankenstein has really turned into our twenty-first century medical reality.