In America, someone dies from cardiovascular disease every 34 seconds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A better understanding of our most vital organ is urgent.

This year, a BU-led team of engineers, biologists, and geneticists—including Christopher Chen, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, medical doctor, and professor of biomedical engineering, Christos Michas (ENG’21,’21), a doctoral student, and Alice White, professor of mechanical engineering—has developed a new way of studying the heart: by building a miniature replica of a heart chamber from nanoengineered parts and human tissue.

About 697,000 people in the US died from heart disease in 2020–that’s one in every five deaths.

The device could give researchers a more accurate view of how the organ works, allowing them to track its embryonic growth, study the impact of disease, and test the effectiveness and side effects of new treatments—all at zero risk to patients and without leaving a lab. The technology could also pave the way for lab-based versions of other organs, such as lungs and kidneys. Their findings were published in Science Advances in April 2022.

The project grew out of the National Science Foundation–funded, multi-institutional Engineering Research Center in Cellular Metamaterials (CELL-MET), led by BU since 2017. The center’s goal is to regenerate diseased human heart tissue, building a community of scientists and industry experts to test new drugs and create artificial implantable patches for hearts damaged by heart attacks or disease.

“Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, touching all of us,” says White. “Today, there is no cure for a heart attack. The vision of CELL-MET is to change this.”