Silk Hearts: Strange Reality or Elder Scrolls VI Alchemy Reagent?

I apologize for the title, dearest galleons. I’ve been trying to curb the amount of Skyrim commentary I sneak on here, but a few little comments are bound to get through.

It probably doesn’t help that I’m listening to this as I write this.

Anyway, a few months back you listened to me prattle on about cellular regeneration for a bit. And while the human body has some remarkable healing and regenerative abilities (both tapped and untapped), when it comes to heart muscle, we’re shit out of luck. If heart muscle is damaged, it can’t regenerate. Bit of bad luck, that.

So, instead of regenerating some nice, new heart muscle, what we end up with is scar tissue. Which can lead to very serious problems for us little humans. See, our hearts are these magnificent, efficient little machines, pumping away our entire lives. They are beasts. But, everything has a price. The price we pay for our awesome, blood-pumping friends is that all the body’s regenerative abilities have basically been deactivated in heartland.

Well, shit.

Thus, when a person’s heart cells are damaged from a serious cardiac event (such as a heart attack), the heart never fully recovers. Any cells damaged or killed during the event are lost. They become knotty scar tissue, and the heart can no longer operate at previous efficiency, making it weaker.

Naturally, this isn’t an ideal situation for us. And so, researchers are looking into ways to override nature and fully restore the heart after these debilitating cardiac events. Different groups are attacking the problem from different angles. Some geneticists are looking at restoring the deactivated regenerative properties. And some, like the group from the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research that we’re looking at today, are looking at using outside sources to fix the problem. Like artificial muscle tissue.

Artificial tissue is old hat by now, you are probably thinking. Hell, we can actually print skin cells now. What’s so special about making some muscle tissue?

What makes this group interesting is the scaffolding they’re using to anchor the artificial tissue to the heart. All building tasks have to start with some sort of foundation, and rebuilding damaged heart tissue is no different. The problem lies in the fact that we haven’t been able to find a suitable scaffold. Be they natural or artificial, previous fibers had some serious disadvantages. According to Felix Engel, head of the research group, “They were either too brittle, were attacked by the immune system or did not enable the heart muscle cells to adhere correctly to the fibres.”

But the new scaffold might just work. One of the researchers on Engel’s team, Chinmoy Patra, happens to be an Indian scientist, and at the university in Kharagpur, India, penny-sized silk disks are being produced from the cocoon of the tasar silkworm. Patra and company recognized that this material held some serious advantages in regard to their work. As Patra said, “The surface has protein structures that facilitate the adhesion of heart muscle cells. It’s also coarser than other silk fibres.” Because of this, the muscle cells grow well on it and can form three-dimensional tissue structures.

According to Engel, their initial tests were extremely promising. “The communication between the cells was intact and they beat synchronously over a period of 20 days, just like real heart muscle.”

Unfortunately, these tests were not carried out with human heart muscles, but with rat tissue. It is extremely difficult to obtain the required amount of human cardiac cells to use as a starting point. As a result, no clinical trials are currently scheduled. Engel and his team are still working on the problem, though. They’re currently working on a method to prevent the immune system from attacking the silk scaffolding and new tissue using the patient’s own stem cells as a starting point.

I mostly just love the idea of having a heart built from silk. It’s delightfully poetic.

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