A 3D tissue model that can mimic early-stage human heart development has been created by Syracuse University researchers in order to study tissue regeneration, regenerative medicine and stem cell engineering.

Biomedical engineering assistant professor Zhen Ma and his research team at the university’s System Tissue Engineering & Morphogenesis (STEM) lab have been working with human-induced pluripotent stem cells to make the model. Pluripotent cells can be used to create heart tissue, but Ma’s research team believed they could take their research even further.

Ma said: “Some drugs are difficult for doctors to prescribe to pregnant women because they don’t know the embryo toxicity, how does that effect foetal development. They don’t have the clinical outcome based on human study.

“This type of stem cell has the ability to generate all the different cells in a human body. Because it was derived from humans. We can try to rebuild the shape of the early development heart in the lab. It mimics the very early stage, during the embryo genesis – how the heart was formed.”

Ma’s research team combined biomaterials-based cell patterning and stem cell technology to make the 3D tissue model. By starting with a layer of polymer in a tissue culture dish and etching tiny patterns in the polymer, the stem cells will only attach within those patterns. Since the stem cells do not attach to the polymer, they grow within the patterns and eventually develop into a 3D structure that has distinct tissue types.

The process developed by Ma’s team specifically focused on cardiac tissue, but other labs could adapt it to other tissue types and even organ tissues.

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The platform allows tissue to form during the cell differentiation process rather than building tissue out of already-established heart cells. Tissue that forms during the differentiation process has more layers and more accurately represents how tissue naturally develops in humans.

Graduate student Plansky Hoang said: “Using the cell lines we use, they are human-based so we know they will affect human tissue in a certain way as opposed to the uncertainty that comes with an animal model.”

Some pregnant women avoid taking drugs they need to manage chronic conditions, but if the mother’s health suffers, that can also affect her baby. More reliable test results could provide more confidence for both patients and doctors. Ma believes his team’s research will make it easier for patients to make better decisions about what medicines they can take during pregnancy.

Countless other human tissues could also be cultured using the process and the model could also allow for individualised drug toxicity testing. Different people can have different reactions to the same drug but personalised testing using patient’s stem cells could help determine if a drug is safe for them before they take it.

Hoang said: “The traditional way of screening, they take a patient history and then test you on a drug for a month or two and they assess again you after that. By using our model we can test for multiple drugs at once, so if there is a series of drugs that will potential benefit you, we can test all of them at once as opposed to one at a time that takes longer.”