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Scientists have turned human stem cells into functional pacemaker cells that can trigger a rat’s heart to beat — a potential first step toward making a biological pacemaker.

There’s a specific type of cell in the heart, called a sinoatrial node pacemaker cell, that functions as the body’s natural pacemaker. The cells activate electrical impulses that, in turn, cause the heart to contract.

pacemaker cells
A lab-grown beating pacemaker cell. McEwen Center for Regenerative Medicine

When such cells don’t work correctly, patients may have an electronic pacemaker implanted, but those devices can be tricky — they need to be replaced over time, and among pediatric patients, there’s no simple way to scale up their size as the heart grows. So researchers at the McEwen Center turned to human stem cells, which they were able to differentiate into pacemaker cells over a span of three weeks. The next step: implant the lab-grown cells into animals to test for safety. Read about the work in Nature Biotechnology.