SFU molecular biology and biochemistry students Sanam Shaffaattalab (front), Elham Afshinmanesh, and their doctoral thesis supervisor, professor Glen Tibbits, view manufactured beating heart cells.

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Heart cells throb in SFU lab

February 12, 2015
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By Diane Luckow

In the molecular cardiac physiology lab at Simon Fraser University are dozens of Petrie dishes filled with human heart cells, or cardiomyocytes, all beating in unison.

Graduate students Elham Afshinmanesh and Sanam Shaffaattalab have created the cardiomyocytes from the skin of patients suffering from inherited heart arrhythmias—genetic mutations that cause irregular heartbeats that can be lethal.

Because the beating heart cells share the same genome as the patient, these cells also mimic the patient’s disease, permitting scientists to experiment with potential drug therapies and interventions.

The students are working under the supervision of professor Glen Tibbits, and in collaboration with cardiologists at B.C. Children’s and St. Paul’s hospitals who specialize in inherited cardiac arrhythmias.

Their research is key to developing one of the first laboratories capable of testing cardiomyocytes in vitro and then recommending customized treatment for individuals who have these inherited heart diseases.

“It’s often very challenging for clinicians to assess risk in these patients,” explains Tibbits, who holds a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in molecular cardiac physiology.

“It is frequently difficult to determine whether a patient has a high likelihood of suffering from cardiac arrest or will be okay by simply taking a beta blocker and/or other medications.

“The idea behind our work is to test, with the patient’s own cells, what therapies might work, or not.”

The research is new and complex, and they are optimizing the methods by which a patient’s blood cells can be reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells, which can then become any kind of cell. They have already mastered the ability to turn skin cells into this type of stem cell (iPSC), but would prefer to work with the patient’s blood, since this is more efficient and less invasive than using skin biopsies.

Says Afshinmanesh, “When we convert the blood and skin cells to stem cells not all of them can be further differentiated into heart cells. So we’re looking for markers that will predict which stem cells are good prospects for becoming heart cells.” 

Tibbits expects that within the next few months his lab will be ready to begin testing the beating heart cells with therapeutic interventions to determine the efficacy of individual treatments.

“We have grants to support our work right now, but eventually we hope that these tests will become part of the Medical Services Program, where we will isolate the skin or blood cells, convert them, determine the appropriate patient therapy and then be reimbursed.”

The research is funded with grants from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

Close up of Petrie dish with beating human heart cells.