Researchers measure how the heart beats in a petri dish

24 September 2019• NEWSITEM

Researchers at Leiden University Medical Centre (LUMC) have for the first time succeeded in measuring the three most important physical features of a beating cardiac cell simultaneously in the laboratory. The ability to do so is essential for testing the effect of new drugs on the heart, for example.

Researchers have long been using cardiac cells outside the body to test the effects of drugs on cell function. They derive these cells from stem cells taken from the skin, for example. Until now, however, it has not been possible to reliably test how certain drugs effect the main physical features of a cardiac cell: contraction, electrical action potential and calcium flux. Taken together, these properties cause the cardiac cell to beat, even outside the body in a petri dish.

Equipment and algorithm

Engineer and PhD student Berend van Meer worked with researcher Leon Tertoolen to develop optical equipment and an algorithm that can accurately measure and analyse the three physical features of a beating cardiac cell simultaneously. The researchers describe their method in Nature Communications. 

‘The advantage of this new method – which can also be used in heart-on-a-chip models – is that, on top of being able to better predict what effects drugs will have on the heart in the human body, we can also see how these effects come about. In other words, we gain a better understanding of the mechanism of the heart cell and its reaction, and that’s important for knowing which drugs might increase the risk of heart failure. And because it’s also possible to derive heart cells from patients’ own stem cells, we can detect which individuals are sensitive or overly sensitive to certain drugs,’ Van Meer explains. The researchers have shown that measuring only one or even two of the physical features significantly impairs the predictive value of the tests.

For more information, read the article ‘Simultaneous measurement of excitation-contraction coupling parameters identifies mechanisms underlying contractile responses of hiPSC-derived cardiomyocytes’ in Nature Communications.

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