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Scientists develop ‘self-healing’ muscles

Published time: April 01, 2014 23:44
Edited time: April 03, 2014 15:40
Long, colorful strands of engineered muscle fiber have been stained to observe growth after implantation into a mouse. (Image courtesy of Duke University)

Long, colorful strands of engineered muscle fiber have been stained to observe growth after implantation into a mouse. (Image courtesy of Duke University)

Scientists at Duke University announced they have developed living muscle tissue that can heal itself in an animal just as natural tissue would, raising hopes that more research will lead to self-healing muscles to help humans recover from injuries.

Biomedical engineers discovered that the test skeletal muscle developed at the Durham, North Carolina school was able to integrate into lab mice quickly, and then heal itself quickly once inside the animal. They also measured the muscle’s strength by shocking it with electric pulses, discovering it was more than 10 times stronger than any previously engineered muscles, according to Quartz.

Lead researcher Nenad Bursac told the site that perhaps the most exciting development was that they were able to isolate stem cells from mouse muscle and then grow them into muscle fibers.

We got them to grow into strongly contracting fibers,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve seen muscle fibers contract so strongly in the lab. It was comparable to the contracting forces you’d see in an actual mouse muscle.”

This series of images shows the destruction and subsequent recovery of engineered muscle fibers that had been exposed to a toxin found in snake venom. This marks the first time engineered muscle has been shown to repair itself after implantation into a living animal. (Image courtesy of Duke University)

They injected many of the undefined stem cells with cobra venom, which killed the original tissue within a half hour. The new fibers, though, proved reliable enough to resist the venom and heal the damage that had already been done.

The muscle we have made represents an important advance for the field. It’s the first time engineered muscle has been created that contracts as strongly as native neonatal skeletal muscle,” Dr. Bursac told the Telegraph’s Lucy Kinder. “Can it vascularize, innervate and repair the damaged muscle’s function? That is what we will be working on for the next several years.”

The artificial vascularization process, which would provide a channel through which body fluid can travel, is not expected to be discovered for 10-15 years, at which point Dr. Brusac predicted it would be worthy of a Nobel Prize.

Such experiments with human muscle tissue have not been successful, although scientists have admitted excitement at the possibility that the process will someday be feasible. The findings were first published this week in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences.

The stem cells don’t just build these fibers,” Bursac said. “They sit next to the muscle fibers, and if there’s an injury – if a muscle is torn, and some fibers die – these cells jump in and fuse to rebuild the lost tissue.”

This series of images shows the progress of veins slowly growing into implanted engineered muscle fibers. (Image courtesy of Duke University)

Dr. Bursac said he is trying to take that process out of the Duke labs and into hospitals, where it could eventually benefit professional athletes trying to return from an injury or elderly surgery patients. The lead researcher admitted that, even though news of the mice study is just being made public now, his team has already completed successful trials with human tissue.

I think we’re the only group with active contracting human muscle and it’s very important for drug testing,” he told Quartz. “If you’re testing a drug that’s supposed to improve muscle function, it improves pre-clinical testing if you use something physiologically similar to native muscle.”

Researchers are optimistic that they will be able to fully replace an injured muscle soon, although a realistic timeline is difficult to come by. To complete the process effectively, doctors would need to extract a small muscle, sample harvest cells from it, use that sample to grow new tissue, and then transfer it back to the same individual.

Aside from the difficulty the timeline would present, scientists still only have a small sample size they can use for experiments. Bursac told Quartz’s Rachel Feltman that a single human biopsy only yields a small number of stem cells, which become weaker as they are expanded more and more.

Let’s say you’re rebuilding a facial muscle,” he said. “For a human, that’s a large muscle mass. The cells in the center of the muscle would die from lack of nutrients. You need to make a vasculature system that could sustain life while the muscle was outside the body.”

Comments (8)


George 08.04.2014 01:57

I read a neat sci-fi once. I wish I could remember the title.

Futu re, polution, near ecological failure. It was the chemicals in all. Understated to the people.

It slowly emerged that gov. was aware the problem was much more acute; upon us. The debate, within, was whether we could clean up in time to avert disaster. Or whether it was too late and better to engineer humans who could withstand the lost cause of an ecology. People who could breath selenium fibers, and drink poison. That side was won. Lost environment. And a deeply different, new man to come.

I see it now. In GMO. And this. In many stories.


eyeofinsight 04.04.2014 10:02

@ rocky Fjord' 'Sounds like much ado about nothing. Scientism. Let them fix Fukushima if they are so smart, and then we'll talk. Some nonsense to write unreadable journal articles about. Science, blah, blah, blah, blah...'

Co uldn't agree more. Too much of what passes as science is way too speculative to take seriously. We have real world problems & no-one wants to solve those. Lets solve the problems of today and stop with this nonsense of 10-15yrs from now we will be able to do this or that. Somehow science is able to do everything apart from solving current problems. Too many scientists are owned by corporations.


delete m 03.04.2014 19:52

My muscles already self-heal. My body does it all the time.

If I cut myself it just heals - I don't have to do anything. I can eat a Big Mac and Fries or any rubbish ... and my body is so amazing that it heals itself.

Sci entists are always talking about creating a self-healing seal-aware robot ... well ... I AM THAT right now !!!!


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