In what's being hailed as a medical first, researchers at Duke University announced this week that they had bioengineered human skeletal muscle tissue capable of contracting like the real thing.
The scientists said the lab-grown tissue could become a powerful new tool for studying diseases like muscular dystrophy. In addition, it could facilitate the development of specialized drugs to treat these diseases--and eliminate the need to test the drugs on humans, which can be risky.
“One of our goals is to use this method to provide personalized medicine to patients,” Dr. Nenad Bursac, a professor of biomedical engineering at the university and one of the researchers, said in a written statement. “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.”
Other scientists praised the research.
"This breakthrough allows one to rapidly screen a large number of drugs on normal and diseased human muscle cells, facilitating development of therapies for neuromuscular diseases," Dr. Grace Pavlath, senior vice-president and scientific program director for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, told The Huffington Post in an email.
To create the lab-grown muscle, Bursac and his colleagues extracted muscle "precursor" cells from human tissue and then multiplied the cells 1,000-fold in a dish full of nutrients. Then they mixed the cells with a nourishing gel and placed them into a 3D mold, which encouraged the cells to line up and fuse into muscle fibers.
The moment of truth came when researchers watched as they stimulated the fibers with electrical impulses and a range of drugs, including cholesterol-lowering statins and the performance-enhancing drug clenbuterol. Sure enough, the researchers said, the muscle reacted to these stimuli just like native human tissue.
Next, the researchers hope to create artificial muscle tissue from stem cells taken from skin or blood samples. That would eliminate the need to collect the cells via biopsy, which can be tricky with patients suffering from certain diseases.
The research was accepted for publication in the open-access journal eLife in January.