“Growing heart muscle cells is like science fiction”

Researcher Berend van Meer (LUMC) measures the electrical activity, calcium flows and contraction of heart muscle cells on a chip to assess the risks of cardiac drugs. He grows the cells from human stem cells, so without the use of laboratory animals. According to Berend, this type of research can be a better method for many diseases. “However, simulating an entire organism in a dish is still too complicated for the time being.”

Berend van Meer
Berend van Meer

Berend (32 years old) won the Hugo van Poelgeest Award for his research into human heart models. This was the first time this longest-standing Dutch award for animal-free research went to a young researcher. Professor Christine Mummery (LUMC) nominated him for the award. After completing his studies in electrical engineering at Delft University of Technology, Berend joined her to work on his PhD in Organ-On-Chip research

Cells from urine or skin

“In our Organ-on-Chip research, cells from a patient's urine or skin, for example, are genetically ‘reprogrammed’ to form basal stem cells. With these stem cells, we can then make other cells, such as heart muscle cells. We then place these cells in a smart environment (a ‘chip’), which fools the cells into thinking they are in the body. We can make small blood vessels on the chip, for example, or use a material that is as soft as body tissue.”

“The cells then behave like they do in the body, thus allowing us to replicate the functions of the human organs in the chip. Finally, we can also place sensors in the chip. This allows us to measure – outside the body – how an organ reacts to certain actions and medications.”

“My work as an engineer at the LUMC feels like the ideal combination between the technical and medical worlds.”

Magical combination

Berend is delighted to be able to work as an engineer at the LUMC. “At first, my jaw would drop at some of the things that my colleagues here knew and that I could learn from. For example, a doctor in our department once took me to the dissecting rooms and explained the anatomy and physiology of the heart using heart specimens.” 

“I spent years wanting to be a doctor when I was younger, but I didn't like the clinical side of things. However, I always enjoyed taking computers apart. I also had a huge interest in the biology behind diseases and mechanisms. The combination between the technical and medical worlds therefore attracted me enormously. For example, the fact that people with a chip in their arm can control a robot arm and actually feel things is something I consider pure magic. That’s why I first studied electrical engineering at Delft University of Technology. A few years later, I was triggered by a guest lecture here – by Professor Ronald Dekker about Organ-on-Chip – and I eventually went down the biological route after my studies.”

Research without laboratory animals

The young researcher regularly communicates his research to the general public. “There is something photogenic and science fiction-like about this research. If you explain it simply, people can understand what you’re talking about, and they also think it makes sense that you can test on human tissue instead of animals. So it might seem like science fiction, but it concerns something that people really care about. I am truly convinced that these models will allow us to carry out research into new drugs. Many of these tests are still being carried out on laboratory animals, but they often don’t provide certainty about the safety of new drugs for humans. There must be a better way."

“Of course, some studies with laboratory animals are difficult to replace. If you want to know how a drug will react inside a body, you might think that you could link various different models together. Simulating all the functions of an entire organism in a dish is a complicated process, however. The question is whether we will ever be able to do this and whether it will ever be feasible.”

“Our models allow us to chart more accurately where things could go wrong with these patients in the longer term.”

Independent test centres

Although Berend's research focuses specifically on heart muscle cells from stem cells, it is also possible to grow other things such as liver and kidney cells or a blood-brain barrier in the same way. “Our department at the LUMC is good at cardiovascular models, but we can’t test for every organ. That's why we need independent test centres that can do this. We want to set up a foundation with the Dutch Organ-on-Chip network hDMT (human Organ and Disease Model Technologies) and the University of Twente (UT) to focus specifically on testing these models. Not just in the Netherlands, but throughout Europe. The EMA (European Medicines Agency) requires tests from an independent centre in order to seriously examine whether this model is also permitted in toxicity studies. In this way, we are paving the way for animal-free research.”

Berend believes that the current COVID-19 crisis also offers opportunities in this area. “We now know that the virus can also cause long-term damage to the lungs and heart. Our models allow us to chart more accurately where things could go wrong with these patients in the longer term.” Berend coordinated a joint grant application by the LUMC, UT and the companies Ncardia and River Biomedics for the use of the heart models to study COVID-19. Health~Holland awarded the grant.

The Netherlands leading the way

According to Berend, the Netherlands is one of the pioneers in the field of regenerative medicine, and this offers opportunities. “A lot of works are being published in this field. There is a great deal of collaboration between universities, and many companies are working in the biotechnology arena. I think we need to take a step towards turning this excellent academic expertise into technology that people can use.”

“First of all, we will need to scale up this technology. Although we know we can make human heart muscles, we can only do so very slowly. In the meantime, we also need to find out what it costs to grow these models on a large scale. In addition, we must already engage in dialogue on what is possible, to ensure that technological developments do not lead to social resistance in the future. Timely information is extremely important. This will help everyone understand the usefulness of the study.”

Would you like to know more?

Watch the video about Berend van Meer here.