Going back to figure out how the embryo makes muscles led team to way to mass produce muscle fibers

Sometimes in science what seems like the simpler task turns out to be the hardest. We have written extensively about research teams building mini-organs in lab dishes turning stem cells into multiple layers of tissues organized and functioning, at least in part, like the kidney, liver or stomach they mimic. Given these successes and the relative simplicity of our muscles, you would have thought we would have petri dishes with bulging biceps by now. We don’t. But a team at Harvard and Brigham and Women’s hospital has made a major stride toward that goal.

Smooth muscle cells grown from embryonic stem cells (courtesy Sanford-Burnham Institute).

Smooth muscle cells grown from embryonic stem cells (courtesy Sanford-Burnham Institute).

While previous work has created small amounts of short muscle fibers from stem cells, the Brigham group created large quantities of millimeter-long muscle fibers. This level of muscle development could produce therapeutic quantities of new muscle that would be needed to treat patients with muscular dystrophy. This goal has sent many teams back to the lab looking for better ways to direct stem cells to become muscle.

The current work, published this week in Nature Biotechnology, went back to the basics and tried to understand each step that a stem cell goes through on the way to becoming muscle in the embryo. Medical Daily wrote a piece on the work, and used a quote in the Brigham press release from the senior author Olivier Pourquie:

“We analyzed each stage of early development and generated cell lines that glowed green when they reached each stage. Going step by step, we managed to mimic each stage of development and coax cells toward muscle cell fate.”

Stem cell scientist often find that going back to learn and mimic the natural steps of development works better than guessing what factors are most important in a cell’s fate. Now that they hold a map to the path between stem cell and muscle fibers, they can use it to study many different muscle diseases and work toward therapies for those often-untreatable conditions.

“This has been the missing piece: the ability to produce muscle cells in the lab could give us the ability to test out new treatments and tackle a spectrum of muscle diseases,” Pourquie said.

CIRM funds a dozen projects working to understand and develop therapies for muscle disease.

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