It was the aquarium that sent Kit Parker down an unexpected path with his heart research. He was there with his daughter watching jellyfish pulsing through the water. The jellyfish, he realized, looked a lot like hearts pumping blood.
So he went back to his lab to build a jellyfish-inspired robot, powered by muscles made of living heart cells from a rat. The heart cells squeezed and relaxed, squeeze and relaxed, pumping water to propel the artificial jellyfish. It was a rat heart, radically simplified to its most basic function.
Parker, a bioengineer at Harvard, has taken an unconventional approach to mimicking the human heart. On one hand, he’s a leader in the field of organs-on-chips, mimicking human organs in miniature to test new drugs and chemicals. His lab is out with a new paper in Nature Materials today showing a cheap and fast way to 3D-printed chips with heart cells growing on them.
But he also has a more ambitious project: growing a whole living human heart—not for drug testing but for transplant. A new heart grown out of a patient’s own cells would do away with the immunosuppressant drugs transplant recipients have to take for the rest of their lives. And it would leapfrog the bulky mechanical hearts—made of plastic and metal—that patients waiting for transplants currently use.