Brigham and Women’s Hospital Is Building Synthetic Muscles

They could eventually be used to develop treatments for muscular dystrophy.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) have successfully grown millimeter-long synthetic muscle fibers in their lab, which could make it far easier to eventually find treatments for muscular dystrophy and other disorders.

Growing muscles has traditionally been more difficult than producing other bodily cells in a lab, but BWH’s team used a new technique that effectively mimics the way muscle fibers naturally develop in the body. Oliver Pourquie, one of the study’s authors and a member of BWH’s pathology department, said in a statement that the method is more labor intensive, but ultimately more effective, than past techniques that rely on genetic modification:

“We took the hard route: we wanted to recapitulate all of the early stages of muscle cell development that happen in the body and recreate that in a dish in the lab,” said corresponding 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.”

The final product, made from mouse or human stem cells, is able to contract and multiply rapidly, allowing the researchers to build sophisticated, life-like models that can be studied and manipulated to find new treatment options for muscular disorders. “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 in the statement.

BWH’s breakthrough is the latest in a string of transplant and synthetic construction advancements happening in Boston. During this summer alone, Massachusetts General Hospital made significant progress in constructing artificial limbs, and Boston Children’s Hospital used zebrafish to study ways to improve bone marrow transplants.