Picture for representation
Picture for representation Reuters

Researchers at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) of A*STAR have found a new way to improve drug testing through the use of three-dimensional heart tissue grown from stem cells. IBN Executive Director Prof. Jacki Ying said this would significantly improve the safety and efficacy of new drugs for the heart.

"Cardiotoxicity, which can lead to heart failure and even death, is a major cause of drug withdrawal from the market. Antibiotics, anticancer and antidiabetic medications can have unanticipated side effects for the heart. So it is important to test as early as possible whether a newly developed drug is safe for human use. However, cardiotoxicity is difficult to predict in the early stages of drug development," she said.

She noted that there have been failures in detect cardiovascular toxicity when moving from animal studies to human clinical trials as there are substantial genetic and cardiac differences.

More so, existing screening methods based on a 2D cardiac structure cannot accurately predict drug toxicity, whilst the currently available 3D structures for screening are difficult to fabricate in the quantities needed for commercial application.

In order to bridge the gap, IBN researchers engineered a 3D heart tissue from cellular self-assembly of heart muscle cells grown from human induced pluripotent stem cells. Dr Andrew Wan, who is Team Leader and Principal Research Scientist at IBN said they also devised a fluorescence labelling technology to monitor changes in beating rate using a real-time video recording system.

"Using the 3D heart tissue, we were able to correctly predict cardiotoxic effects based on changes in the beating rate, even when these were not detected by conventional tests. The method is simple and suitable for large-scale assessment of drug side effects. It could also be used to design personalised therapy using a patient's own cells," he said.

The IBN researchers have already filed a patent on their human heart tissue model. They are hoping to work with clinicians and pharmaceutical companies to bring this technology available in the market.