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Columbia Engineering researchers have shown, for the first time, that electrical stimulation of human heart muscle cells (cardiomyocytes) engineered from human stem cells aids their development and function. The team used electrical signals, designed to mimic those in a developing heart, to regulate and synchronize the beating properties of nascent cardiomyocytes, the cells that support the beating function of the heart.

Cardiovascular disease is one of the major health problems around the world, especially because the heart cannot repair itself: if cardiomyocytes are lost to injury or disease, they have only a minimal ability to regenerate. Scientists have been trying to develop ways to regenerate hearts by using cardiomyocytes grown from the patient’s cells taken from skin or blood.

To be successful, these cardiomyocytes need to respond to and integrate with the surrounding heart muscle. But, currently, the immaturity and resultant irregular beating of human cardiomyocytes derived from stem cells have limited their usefulness for regenerative medicine and biological research.

“We’ve made an exciting discovery,” says Vunjak-Novakovic. “We applied electrical stimulation to mature these cells, regulate their contractile function, and improve their ability to connect with each other. In fact, we trained the cell to adopt the beating pattern of the heart, improved the organization of important cardiac proteins, and helped the cells to become more adult-like. This preconditioning is an important step to generating robust cells that are useful for a wide range of applications including the study of cardiomyocyte biology, drug testing, and stem cell therapy. And we think that our method could lead to the reduction of arrhythmia during cell-based heart regeneration.”

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