CLEMSON — Heart-attack damage could be repaired with stem cells and tiny “nanowires” as part of a new research project that involves all three of South Carolina’s major research universities and is backed by $1.5 million from the National Institutes of Health.

Ying Mei, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Clemson University, is leading the project.

Ying Mei is leading research that involves all three of South Carolina's major research universities and the University of Chicago.

Ying Mei is leading research that involves all three of South Carolina’s major research universities and the University of Chicago.
Image Credit: Mic Smith

The goal is to create the first therapy for heart failure, which affects 5.7 million Americans and costs the nation about $30.7 billion each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs in the body. About half of people who develop heart failure die within five years of diagnosis, the CDC found.

“Right now we don’t have a therapy to treat heart failure,” Mei said. “I saw that this is a big problem. There is a huge need here and I’m trying to do something to address it.”

Mei is collaborating with researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina,  the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago. His lab in the Bioengineering Building on MUSC’s campus in Charleston.

The core problem driving the research is that the heart has no way of replacing damaged and dead muscle cells after a heart attack. But recent developments in stem cell biology have buoyed hopes that modern medicine can do for the heart what it cannot do for itself.

Stem cells can be taken from a patient’s blood, fat or skin tissues and grown into muscle cells that are specifically tailored for each patient’s heart. It’s an approach, however, that remains experimental.

Individual cells have been injected into rat hearts in previous experiments, but very few have become a functional part of the heart muscle. Most wash away or die off, Mei said.

Another problem is that newly created cells want to beat to their own rhythm. Injecting them into the heart could cause arrhythmia, which would create more trouble than it would solve.

Mei said he and his team are addressing both problems.

Their approach starts with mixing together muscle cells and silicon nanowires that are so small they can be seen only with a microscope. The cells and nanowires clump up into ball-like shapes that researchers are calling “spheroids” and can be injected into the heart with a small needle.

The spheroids are larger than single cells. Mei’s previous experiments have shown they are much less likely to wash away after they are transplanted.

But it’s the silicon nanowires that are the main focus in the new research. They could prove to be key in preventing arrhythmia.

Mei and his team believe the nanowires will improve the electrical interaction between the spheroids and the heart’s own cell muscles. And researchers will use electrical stimulation to condition the spheroids to contract like they would in the heart.

“In this proposal, we are using these engineering tools to make cells beat less so once they transplant into the heart they have less or no chance to cause arrhythmia,” Mei said.

Martine LaBerge, chair of the department of bioengineering at Clemson, said that Mei is uniquely qualified to lead the research.

“Dr. Mei has been working with stem cells since he was a postdoctoral researcher at MIT,” she said. “He has deep experience in this area and is strategically located at MUSC, enabling close cooperation with his collaborators.”

The project lasts four years and is titled “Nanowired Human Cardiac Spheroids for Heart Repair.” His collaborators are Donald Menick of MUSC, Martin Morad of USC and  Bozhi Tian of the University of Chicago.

Any treatment involving stem cells would be several years off, Mei said. Introducing the spheroid technology into a clinical setting is the team’s long-term goal.

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said that Mei’s research is aimed at engineering better medicines, one of the grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering.

“I congratulate Dr. Mei and his team on the grant, which addresses one of society’s critical needs,” Gramopadhye said. “The consortium they have formed underscores how a strongly collaborative environment can attract major funding and foster innovation.”