stem cell magic
Innovative Houston lab works with 'ghost hearts' to study impact of regenerative medicine
Ask any high achiever and they’ll tell you — failure is the path to success.
As Camila Hochman-Mendez puts it, “I’m like Thomas Edison, right? I know a thousand ways of how not to create a lightbulb.” But she’s not really talking about electricity. Hochman-Mendez is director of Regenerative Medicine Research and the Biorepository Core at Texas Heart Institute.
Hochman-Mendez follows another pioneering woman in the role, Doris Taylor. The younger scientist took on the prime job when Taylor left in 2020. By then, Hochman-Mendez had been at The Texas Heart Institute for three years, moving from research scientist to assistant director in just four months.
Regenerative Medicine is every bit as exciting as it sounds. At Hochman-Mendez’s lab, her team creates ghost hearts — organs from which all cells are scrubbed, leaving collagen, fibronectin, and laminin in the shape of the formerly beating ticker. The goal is to use the decellularized organs as protein scaffolds that, once injected with stem cells, will once again contract and pump blood.
Hochman-Mendez cautions that we are still years away from that point, but her lab is working hard to get there.
“The ultimate goal is to develop functional hearts that can be used for transplant,” says Hochman-Mendez.
Those hearts would be made from the patient’s own cells, avoiding organ rejection, which the scientist says is essentially trading one disease for another. But she is realistic about that fact that there are many barriers to her success.
“It does come with a lot of technical challenges,” she says.
These challenges include the simple number of cells that billions, and potentially hundreds of billions of cardiomyocytes are needed to recreate a human heart. The necessary protocols, Hochman-Mendez explains, are extremely costly and labor intensive.
It also takes 60 days for the cells to reach a maturity at which they can function. The lab recently received a pair of grants targeted at creating bioreactors that can be reliable for at least those 60 days.
The third major issue facing the Regenerative Medicine lab is contamination.
“It needs to be very sterile,” says Hochman-Mendez. “It needs to be so clean that if you have one tiny bacteria there, you’re screwed.”
Fortunately, the scientist says that her favorite hobby is computer programming. She and a physician colleague have created a robotic arm that can help to prevent the contamination that often stemmed from humans manually injecting stem cells into the decellularized organs.
This not only works towards solving the contamination problem, it also allows the team to more accurately distribute the cells that they add, using an injection map. To that end, she is producing a three-dimensional model of a protein scaffold that will allow her team and other scientists in the field of regenerative medicine to understand how the cells really disperse when they inject them.
When will her lab produce working hearts?
“I try to be very conservative on timing,” she says.
She explains that it will take significant leaps in technology to make a heart mature to the level at which it’s usable for an adult body in 60 days.
“That’s magic and I don’t believe in magic,” she says, but adds that she hopes to have a prototype ready to be tested in five years.
Hochman-Mendez does this all with a small team of nine researchers, most of whom happen to be female.
“The best candidates are the ones that I select," she says. "The majority are females. I think it’s a mix of trying to be very unbiased, but I usually don’t even look at the name before looking at the CV to preselect the people that I interview.”
And together, Hochman-Mendez are making medical history, one success-spawning failure at a time.
Camila Hochman-Mendez is director of Regenerative Medicine Research and the Biorepository Core at Texas Heart Institute. Photo via texasheart.org
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