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Developing a human muscle ‘organoid’ to study muscle wasting

Dr Davina Simoes

University of Northumbria

Animals to be replaced: mice, rats and guinea pigs


Sarcopenia is a muscle wasting condition affecting nearly a third of elderly people. It’s a natural part of the aging process but can lead to frailty, disability and early death. It can also have a significant impact on patients and their families, due to dependency and long hospital stays.

Sarcopenia can also develop in chronic conditions such as chronic lung or heart diseases and rheumatoid arthritis. However, not everyone with a chronic condition suffers from muscle wasting, so its underlying causes aren’t fully understood.  Exercise is currently recommended to counter muscle wasting but it’s very difficult for people with heart or lung diseases to maintain an exercise program and muscle repair is relatively slow. Improved ways to understand and treat the condition are urgently needed.

Animals have traditionally been used to study sarcopenia because muscle sampling is invasive and painful for people. Furthermore, the muscle from one person can behave very differently to that of another person, which makes comparing research results difficult. This has been overcome by using genetically identical animals, but animal muscles are inherently different in the way they develop, behave and react to drugs, so don’t mirror what happens in people.

Yellow arrows indicate the human 3D engineered muscle

Dr Davina Simoes, at the University of Northumbria, is developing a 3D muscle organoid (a mini version of a muscle) which will better reflect the human muscle. All our cells, including muscle cells, are maintained in a complex 3D scaffold, known as the extracellular matrix. It supports cells and contains proteins which instruct them on how to behave. Previous research has indicated that some of the proteins within the scaffold could be important in the development of sarcopenia, but their role in people isn’t fully understood.

Dr Simoes will use the muscle organoid to study how muscle cells grow and develop in people. She’ll also re-create the scaffold to determine the precise role of its components in sarcopenia. As well as replacing the animals currently used in muscle research, developing this organoid could advance our understanding of muscle growth, and pave the way for drug development and testing, to more effectively tackle muscle wasting diseases.