Global Health Nexus, Summer 2002

Making Hearts Throb

Inside Dr. Louis Terracio’s laboratory, a tiny experimental heart muscle bobs around a culture dish, throbbing much like a human heart.

Dr. Terracio created the muscle by taking heart muscle cells from rats and fusing them with collagen from cowhides. “Heart muscle cells continue beating even when they’re removed from animals,” he explains. “When we put them in the culture dish, the cells form interconnections, and in a couple of weeks, they begin beating in unison and mimicking the action of a heart.”

The experimental muscle could eventually be used to patch damaged heart ventricles, and a pacemaker could be attached to the muscle to spur the heart’s contraction. The muscle could also be implanted in children born with missing heart muscle because of congenital heart disease.

Dr. Terracio and his postdoctoral research associate, Tom Yan, are also developing skeletal muscle that could be implanted in patients with oral, head, and neck cancer. Often, these patients have their salivary glands removed or lose the muscles controlling their facial expressions. In many cases, large portions of the face are removed, leaving the patient disfigured. While faces can be cosmetically reconstructed, the muscles that control movement cannot be restored. To solve this problem, Dr. Terracio is creating bioengineered muscle in his laboratory that could be used to replace lost muscle needed for chewing and for facial expression.

While the muscles in Dr. Terracio’s laboratory are still small, he hopes to grow them large enough to be able to handle the human body’s intense workload. Initially, the muscles will be strengthened in a laboratory stretch device. Once they’ve grown robust, they will be transplanted to an animal, where Dr. Terracio hopes to connect them to the blood supply and then to the nervous system.

This project comes naturally for Dr. Terracio, who spent years studying how muscle develops. “At NYU Dentistry, I’m combining my basic science experience with my knowledge of tissue engineering. This is part of our effort to produce research that can eventually be evaluated in clinical trials.”

The process of creating muscle strong enough for the human body is a painstaking one. For now, all eyes are on Dr. Terracio’s laboratory, where the tiny muscle beats on and on in its little culture dish. But in time, Dr. Terracio hopes its pulse will become a familiar rhythm in people’s lives.