Bioengineer Associate Professor James Hudson has developed a new way to mass-produce human heart tissue from stem cells.
The achievement will help researchers study diseases, screen new drugs, and investigate heart development and repair.
In recognition of his leadership in stem cell research, he has received one of two annual $50,000 Metcalf Prizes from the National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia.
Associate Professor James Hudson.
Credit: QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute
Professor Hudson, from the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, induces stem cells to form ‘organoids’ – miniature beating hearts. To date, he has created 20,000 of them.
As well as using them to study diseases and test new pharmaceuticals, he also deploys the organoids to study how heart muscle cells obtain and use energy, and how this influences their ability to regenerate. His goal is to make new tissue to repair damaged hearts
“We’re trying to understand how the heart works in order to fix it; the same way a car mechanic needs to understand how a car engine works in order to fix it,” he says.
Cardiovascular disease kills an average of 23 Australians every day, and scientists face an urgent need for human heart tissue to use in research. James’ cell-culturing system removes the need for manual handling and automates the whole process of producing it, massively increasing supply.
This in turn dramatically speeds up testing for heart drug candidates.
The process, however, has limitations. The heart is one of the least regenerative organs. Most of its growth after birth comes from muscle cells, known as cardiomyocytes, getting larger. If adult cells are damaged, the body can’t replace them.
The lab-grown heart tissue, while extremely useful in research, is not developed enough to be used in a treatment setting.
“The process of maturation is really important for the heart,” he says. “No one really knows what makes these tissues become fully mature.”
James and his colleagues are now seeking to develop appropriately robust cardiac tissue for use in patients.
“In five years, I hope we will be closer to or even starting clinical trials for stem cell-derived patches for cardiovascular repair and for drug candidates we helped identify, with many more treatments in the pipeline behind them,” he says.