The first time molecular biologist Doris Taylor saw heart stem cells beat in unison in a petri dish, she was spellbound.
“It actually changed my life,” said Taylor, who directed regenerative medicine research at Texas Heart Institute in Houston until 2020. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s life.’ I wanted to figure out the how and why, and re-create that to save lives.”
That goal has become reality. On Wednesday at the Life Itself conference, a health and wellness event presented in partnership with CNN, Taylor showed the audience the scaffolding of a pig’s heart infused with human stem cells – creating a viable, beating human heart the body will not reject. Why? Because it’s made from that person’s own tissues.
“Now we can truly imagine building a personalized human heart, taking heart transplants from an emergency procedure where you’re so sick, to a planned procedure,” Taylor told the audience.
“That reduces your risk by eliminating the need for (antirejection) drugs, by using your own cells to build that heart it reduces the cost … and you aren’t in the hospital as often so it improves your quality of life,” she said.
Debuting on stage with her was BAB, a robot Taylor painstakingly taught to inject stem cells into the chambers of ghost hearts inside a sterile environment. As the audience at Life Itself watched BAB functioning in a sterile environment, Taylor showed videos of the pearly white mass called a “ghost heart” begin to pinken.
“It’s the first shot at truly curing the number one killer of men, women and children worldwide – heart disease. And then I want to make it available to everyone,” said Taylor to audience applause.
“She never gave up,” said Michael Golway, lead inventor of BAB and president and CEO of Advanced Solutions, which designs and creates platforms for building human tissues.
“At any point, Dr. Taylor could have easily said ‘I’m done, this just isn’t going to work. But she persisted for years, fighting setbacks to find the right type of cells in the right quantities and right conditions to enable those cells to be happy and grow.”
Giving birth to a heart
Taylor’s fascination with growing hearts began in 1998, when she was part of a team at Duke University that injected cells into a rabbit’s failed heart, creating new heart muscle. As trials began in humans, however, the process was hit or miss.
“We were putting cells into damaged or scarred regions of the heart and hoping that would overcome the existing damage,” she told CNN. “I started thinking: What if we could get rid of that bad environment and rebuild the house?”
Taylor’s first success came in 2008 when she and a team at the University of Minnesota washed the cells out of a rat’s heart and began to work with the translucent skeleton left behind.
Soon, she graduated to using pig’s hearts, due to their anatomical similarity to human hearts.
“We took a pig’s heart, and we washed out all the cells with a gentle baby shampoo,” she said. “What was left was an extracellular matrix, a transparent framework we called the ‘ghost heart.’
“Then we infused blood vessel cells and let them grow on the matrix for a couple of weeks,” Taylor said. “That built a way to feed the cells we were going to add because we’d reestablished the blood vessels to the heart.”
The next step was to begin injecting the immature stem cells into the different regions of the scaffold, “and then we had to teach the cells how to grow up.”
“We must electrically stimulate them, like a pacemaker, but very gently at first, until they get stronger and stronger. First, cells in one spot will twitch, then cells in another spot twitch, but they aren’t together,” Taylor said. “Over time they start connecting to each other in the matrix and by about a month, they start beating together as a heart. And let me tell you, it’s a ‘wow’ moment!”