First bio-engineered, functioning muscles grown in a laboratory

For the first time, researchers at Duke University have grown human skeletal muscle that contracts and responds to external stimuli such as electrical pulses, biochemical signals and pharmaceuticals.

Microscopic view of lab-grown human muscle bundles stained to show patterns made by basic muscle units and their associated proteins shown in red (credit: Nenad Bursac/Duke University).

Microscopic view of lab-grown human muscle bundles stained to show patterns made by basic muscle units and their associated proteins shown in red (credit: Nenad Bursac/Duke University).

The results of the study led by Nenad Bursac, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University, appeared yesterday in the journal eLife. Bursac and collaborators started from a small sample of human cells that had already progressed beyond the stem cells stage, but had not yet become muscle tissue. They then expanded these so-called ‘myogenic precursors’ by a factor of 1,000 and placed them into a three-dimensional scaffold filled with a nourishing gel which allowed them to form aligned and functioning muscle fibres. “We have a lot of experience making bioartifical muscles from animal cells in the laboratory, and it still took us a year of adjusting variables like cell and gel density and optimizing the culture matrix and media to make this work with human muscle cells” – said co-author of the study Lauran Madden.

The grown muscles tissue was subjected to several tests to determine how closely it resembled native human tissue. The muscles were found to contract in response to electrical stimuli – which is the first time for lab-grown human muscles – and were also found to possess intact and functioning signalling pathways for the neural activation of the muscles. The researchers also studied the response of the lab-grown tissue to a variety of drugs and confirmed its response matched that of native human muscles. This was particularly important as one of the main goals of the study is to use lab-grown muscle tissue to test diseases and new drugs in functioning muscles outside the human body. “The beauty of this work is that it can serve as a test bed for clinical trials in a dish” – said Bursac. “We are working to test drugs’ efficacy and safety without jeopardizing a patient’s health and also to reproduce the functional and biochemical signals of diseases – especially rare ones and those that make taking muscle biopsies difficult”. “One of our goals is to use this method to provide personalized medicine to patients” – Bursac added. “We can take a biopsy from each patient, grow many new muscles to use as test samples and experiment to see which drugs would work best for each person”.

The results of this research are extremely promising and Bursac is wasting no time. He is already moving on to the next step working in collaboration with clinicians at Duke Medicine and trying to correlate the effects of certain drugs in patients with those observed in the lab-grown muscles.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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