A Model Of The Heart's Mechanics

Mechanical engineers study buildings and bridges. Why not one of nature's engineering marvels--the human heart? Under a $7 million National Institutes of Health grant, mechanical engineers are teaming up with cardiologists to see whether it's possible to stave off heart problems in adults and children by correcting the organ's development in the womb.

There are plenty of opportunities for the heart to go awry in utero. It starts beating at 17 days and doesn't stop from then on, even as it changes from a simple tube of muscle into an elaborate, four-chambered pump. Much is known about the genetic factors behind heart disease, but little about the mechanical forces that affect the assembly of the heart. That's where engineers from the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology come in.

The goal of the Rochester work is a 3-D computer model of the heart that shows in real time the effect of both cell biology and mechanical forces on individual cells. Similar computer models could be applied to other organs--such as the brain, lung, and kidney--that undergo tremendous shape changes during development.

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