Imagine you've been bitten by a snake and before an anti-venom was able to be administered, the poison ate its way through the muscle in your shin, effectively crippling you. Nowadays, you might have to get that foot amputated and a prosthetic fitted to your leg. But in the near future, you'll have a different option: lab-grown muscles that regenerate and restore function when implanted on your body.
It might sound too good to be true, but a team of Duke University scientists already performed this miracle surgery on a series of test mice. The implanted muscle is capable of flexing and contracting with the same amount of strength as your natural muscles do and it even coaxes your veins to grow into it, integrating it into your body through the natural healing process.
That healing process is even kicked off by the lab-grown muscles themselves. By tailoring implantable muscles with areas referred to as niches, areas where stem cells are embedded, the scientists created muscle tissue that responded to implantation in the body as if it had been injured. These perceived injuries inspired the bodies of the test mice and the lab-grown muscle tissue to integrate with each other as if they had always been part of the same tissue.
By embedding tiny windows in the backs of the mice, the Duke team watched the muscle fibers heal in real time. Over the course of a couple weeks, the bodies of the mice grew new veins into the muscle tissue, integrating it into their bodies. That doesn't quite mean that these muscles are ready for human implantation.
The research team still has to make sure that their creations can vascularize, innervate and function in the same way the tissue they replaced did over the long haul. It will take a few more years, but if everything works out you could soon choose between the advanced prosthetics of the future or a new biological muscle that functions just like the ones you lost.