How To Fix A Broken Heart

Abigail Lee
6 min readDec 1, 2020
A look into the applications of regenerative medicine.

Imagine this.

It’s 2050. You’re in the car with your significant other. You just found out that they cheated on you. Your heart has shattered into pieces and you’re so distraught that you accidentally drive into a tree.

You see a piece of wood impaling your chest and you pass out. Now, your heart is literally and figuratively broken. While surgeons operate on your heart, the damage is too extensive and all they can do is repair some tears and let your heart regenerate.

Back in 2020, you would be put on the transplant list and possibly be waiting for a new heart for at least six months. But thanks to breakthroughs in regenerative medicine, doctors are able to restore your damaged heart tissue and mend your physical pain. But unfortunately, there is nothing they can do about your emotional pain.

What is Regenerative Medicine?

When you get a paper cut or cut yourself on a piece of glass, what happens? You might put a band-aid on it and after about a week it’s healed. How about when you break a bone? You go to the doctor, get a cast, and in about 2–3 months (depending on what you broke) the bone is healed and you can continue with your life. These are both examples of the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

However, there are many things your body cannot repair, like organs or tissue when they have been damaged by disease, trauma, or congenital issues. This is what regenerative medicine is focused on, restore structure and function to damaged tissues and organs, and create solutions for organs that are permanently damaged.

What Can It Do & How Can It Help?

In the field of regenerative medicine, the two main concentrations are tissue engineering/biomaterials and cellular therapies.

Tissue Engineering & Biomaterials

CorMatrix Cardiovascular’s Extracellular Matrix (ECM) material, the basis for the tricuspid valve

If you’re an avid Grey’s Anatomy fan like me, or you know what to do in the event of organ failure, you know that when an organ starts to fail the predominant clinical strategy is to transplant a replacement organ from a donor.

However, the main challenges are obtaining said organs in an efficient matter and the requirement for the use of immunosuppressive drugs, which have side effects. According to the U.S. Government Information on Organ Donation and Transplantation, about 17 people die each day (more than 6,000 a year) waiting for an organ transplant, but the use of tissue engineering could decrease that number significantly.

Tissue engineering is a a biomedical engineering discipline that integrates biology with engineering to create tissues or cellular products outside the body or to make use of gained knowledge to better manage the repair of tissues within the body.

As you may know, our bodies are made of millions of cells, skin cells, blood cells, muscle cells, etc. But there is a specific type of cells that is especially important in the field of regenerative medicine, stem cells. In this case, it is using stem cells to grow organs in a lab, which then could be implanted.

Stem cells are cells that are able to develop into different cell types. Think of them like babies who have no idea what they will be in the future (differentiation), but they have the ability to become whatever they want to be (blood cells, brain cells, muscle cells, etc).

This can be down with the use of 3D-printers, a machine that can create a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model. The use of 3D-printers in medicine is often referred to as 3D-bioprinting

Simulation of 3D-bioprinting

To create successful, viable tissue using 3D-bioprinting you have to:

  1. Harvest cells from biopsies or stem cells, and place these living cells in a petri dish and allow them to multiply. The mixture that results is known as bioink, and is fed into a 3D printer. Think of it like the ink you put in your printer, but filled with cells and a gel to keep it stable.
  2. Then the printer will start printing the structure specified on a digital file, one layer at a time. The printer is programmed to arrange different cell types and materials into a specific three-dimensional shape called a scaffold (kind of like a mold for the tissue).
  3. Once it’s created cells are placed onto the scaffold, usually with growth factors (food for the cells), and the scaffold is placed into a controlled environment where the tissue can assemble.

The most used engineered tissues are artificial skin, commonly used for burn cases, and cartilage. More complex organs have been recreated, but it's a long way from being fully reproducible and efficient enough to readily be implanted into patients.

Producing these tissues are also very helpful in drug development since it can help screen medication without having to potentially put humans or animals in harm's way.

Cellular Therapies

For diseases like leukemia, even though there are effective treatments to destroy the cancer cells, healthy cells are destroyed as well. This leaves patients’ bodies weak and lacking in cells, leaving them susceptible to infections. This would usually be treated by seeking a compatible donor to donate cells, for example, bone marrow, but finding a donor is difficult.

The unique ability of stem cells to develop into different cell types is a key component of cellular therapy.

Cellular therapy is the transplantation of human cells to replace or repair damaged tissue and/or cells.

Stem cells collected from blood, fat, bone marrow, dental pulp, skeletal muscle, and other sources can be harvested and later injected at the site of damaged tissue to reconstruct the tissue. Since the cells will come directly from the patient, there wouldn't be a delay to find a donor or risk of rejection, only the time to harvest the cells, which can take one to ten days.

Cellular therapy currently is used to treat some types of cancer, Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig disease, spinal cord injuries, and diabetes.

So unfortunately a new heart cannot fix your emotional damage, but it will be able to fix your physical damage and allow you to live a full life. Regenerative Medicine has a very bright future, including curing genetic diseases, reverse damage done by diseases, and may even contribute to human longevity and the fight against cancer.

Summary/Key Points

  • Regenerative medicine is focused on, restoring structure and function to damaged tissues and organs, and create solutions for organs that are permanently damaged.
  • Tissue engineering integrates biology with engineering to create tissues or cellular products outside the body or to make use of gained knowledge to better manage the repair of tissues within the body.
  • 3D-printers in medicine is often referred to as 3D-bioprinting. Where you use bioink to print a structure that will be put into a controlled environment to continue growing.
  • Cellular therapy is the transplantation of human cells to replace or repair damaged tissue and/or cells.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment or email me (abbylee0429@gmail.com) with any comments or questions.

--

--

Abigail Lee

High School Student. Innovator at The Knowledge Society. Passionate about medicine!