Carnegie Mellon Engineering

Fixing Broken Hearts Through Engineering

Fixing Broken Hearts Through Engineering

This year, more than half a million Americans will be diagnosed with advanced heart failure, and of those, less than 4,000—roughly seven out of every 1,000—will receive a transplant. The incredibly limited availability of hearts leaves thousands of people with few options. They eagerly wait and hope for a miracle, but the unfortunate truth is that many of these people will perish waiting for a healthy heart.

Broken Heart IllustrationCarnegie Mellon's engineering researchers are taking up the fight for these patients by looking for alternatives to completely replacing a damaged heart with a healthy one.

"The problem with the heart is that it doesn't regenerate naturally," says Adam Feinberg, a professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering. "If heart muscle gets damaged, it forms a stiff scar tissue and the heart can no longer contract properly and eject enough blood."

This buildup of scar tissue leads to heart failure, and like many of Carnegie Mellon's engineering researchers, Feinberg believes there is a way around needing a heart transplant: through tissue engineering.

"The vision for the future is being able to remove the bad tissue and replace it with new heart muscle tissue," he says.

Combining their research efforts and other recent technology developments, Feinberg explains, it is possible to produce individual heart muscle cells. However, getting those heart muscle cells to organize themselves into contractile tissues is a whole different ballgame. To do this, Feinberg's group is working on developing scaffolding that can guide cells to properly assemble themselves into heart tissue.

"You can think of it as the scaffolding that surrounds a building while it's being built," Feinberg says. Rather than metal poles and wooden boards, Feinberg's scaffolding is made of collagen, the major structural protein in connective tissue, and fibronectin, a protein that is used by growing tissues. Since collagen and fibronectin are natural to the body, the cells are able to form heart muscle on the scaffold and then slowly replace the scaffold with mature proteins, forming a stable tissue.

"The excellent work of Adam and his group is aimed to understand the interaction of cell and tissue grafts with heart muscle," says Peter van der Meer, a cardiologist and collaborator of Feinberg's at the University Medical Center Groningen at the University in Netherlands. "These important steps are needed in order to develop regenerative strategies that ultimately may lead to an improved prognosis in patients with heart failure."

Feinberg isn't alone in his tissue engineering goals. Burak Ozdoganlar and Philip LeDuc, professors of mechanical engineering, are working on developing similar scaffolding for building other human tissues. Their scaffolding is made of a plastic that dissolves in water.

"As the cells grow, the scaffold slowly dissolves away and you end up creating a tissue," Ozdoganlar says. "The cells take on the original shape of the scaffold, but it is no longer there."

Ozdoganlar and LeDuc are focusing on building vascular networks into tissues so nutrients can be brought to the tissues and waste can be removed.

"If you don't have blood vessels to give a cell what it needs," LeDuc explains, "it's going to die."

Feinberg, Ozdoganlar and LeDuc's research blend the worlds of engineering and biology, building on their belief that a holistic approach is required to solve problems such as those with the human heart.

"The heart pumps, and blood flows. There are mechanics involved," LeDuc says. "We can use our knowledge in terms of what happens from a mechanics perspective to try to help re-engineer the system itself."

Collaboration Note: The research noted in this story involves collaboration across disciplines, such as biomedical engineering, biology, and mechnical engineering. 

For more information contact: Daniel Tkacik at or 412.268.1187.

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