The collaboration brings to life a science exhibition

The collaboration brings to life a science exhibition

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In the “Give Heart Cells a Beat” exhibit, a visitor’s heartbeat is sent as an electrical signal from steering wheel sensors to a laboratory dish of living heart cells placed behind a window a few feet away. Soon, the cells begin to beat with the visitor’s heart. Credit: Gladstone Institute

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In the “Give Heart Cells a Beat” exhibit, a visitor’s heartbeat is sent as an electrical signal from steering wheel sensors to a laboratory dish of living heart cells placed behind a window a few feet away. Soon, the cells begin to beat with the visitor’s heart. Credit: Gladstone Institute

One of the nation’s best-known science museums, the San Francisco Exploratorium, is less than three miles north of the Gladstone Institute—proximity that has resulted in creative, high-science collaborations like the permanent exhibit featured in the last issue THE Stem cell reports.

Among the museum’s most popular exhibits, Give Heart Cells A Beat opens a rare window into the microscopic world of the beating human heart, using technology and materials made possible through Gladstone’s science and expertise. With the exhibit, the team created the first interactive museum experience that allows the public to directly interact with living cardiomyocytes.

“It’s like having a lens on yourself because the same types of cells are inside us—it’s an incredible experience for our visitors,” says Kristina Yu, Ph.D., senior director of science research and development for the Exploratorium.

As visitors approach the exhibit, a projected video displays the beating heart cells — as many as 200,000 — on a large monitor. Visitors hold the steering wheel sensors in front of the screen and feel their pulse through their hands. Then, within seconds, they watch as the heart cells on the screen begin to beat in sync with their heart.


The Exploratorium’s Dana Carrison-Stone explains how the interactive exhibit is able to synchronize visitors’ heartbeats with living heart cells housed in the museum. Credit: Stem cell reports (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.stemcr.2024.01.004

“Combining very small cells on the plate with a very large image on the screen is quite powerful,” says Yu.

Bruce Conklin, MD, a senior investigator at Gladstone, has collaborated with Yu and others at the Exploratorium for more than 15 years, long before the exhibit opened in 2019. In fact, the idea for the heart exhibit came from a scientist at Conklin’s lab—and it started with a seemingly simple question: Would it be possible to take beating heart cells from the lab and find a way to synchronize them with the hearts of visitors?

“We are always looking for a natural phenomenon that allows a visitor to have an immediate experience with something alive,” says Yu. “That’s incredibly difficult to do at scale, which is why this idea just begged to be done – even though we knew it would be incredibly difficult.”

Yu and Conklin, along with their respective teams, share their experience launching and running the heartbeat exhibit in the new study appearing in Stem cell reports. To their knowledge, it is the first interactive museum exhibit to use living human heart cells – which, in this case, are derived from adult skin cells and then developed into heart cells at Gladstone using stem cell technology stem.

“By sharing our experience in such detail, we hope the exhibition will serve as a model that inspires future relationships between academia and public science environments around the world,” says Conklin. “We’ve been able to create a very powerful and relatable experience that sparks discussion about heart and health, as well as stem cell science.”

The heart of the exhibition

Through interviews with museum visitors who interacted with the exhibit, the Exploratorium found that 90% reported thinking more about their hearts, 30% commented on the technology behind the exhibit, and 20% specifically mentioned stem cells. In addition, visitors engaged longer with the heart cell exhibit than with the other 37 exhibits, the journal article says.


Credit: Gladstone Institute

Importantly, visitors can also learn how the exhibit works: They are taught that their heartbeat is sent as an electrical signal from steering wheel sensors to a laboratory dish holding living heart cells located behind a window a few meters away. When the cells receive the signal, they begin to beat with the visitor’s heart. Signs written on the monitor encourage visitors to increase or decrease their heart rate to see how the cells react or to invite a friend to use the steering wheel to compare heart rates.

“It’s always fun to see the visitors’ reactions,” says Yu. “We see them doing jumps and running in place to get their heart rate up, which translates quickly within the video image. The best part is when they gesture to their friends to come and try it themselves the experience.”

She says it requires much less explanation than other types of biological phenomena because our heartbeat is something we experience throughout our lives: “Although you’ll never get a chance to look at your own living heart cells, you feel them every day. This exhibit allows visitors to have an electric dialogue with these cells.”

Despite many challenges, not the least of which is keeping heart cells alive in a dish for months at a time, it turns out that heart cells are unique in their ability to interact with visitors.

“Heart cells have a dynamic behavior in real time, which is beating, and they can respond to external signals,” explains Juan Perez-Bermejo, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral fellow in Conklin’s lab. , who played a key role in developing the exhibition. He is also the first author of the new study. “No other cell can do this in a way that can be the centerpiece of an exhibition.”

Stem Cell Science in Action

Indeed, the underlying science that makes the exhibition possible is not valid at all.

Gladstone Senior Investigator Shinya Yamanaka, MD, Ph.D., pioneered technology that enables scientists to reprogram cells grown to an embryonic state. Known as induced pluripotent stem cells – or iPSCs – these cells have the ability to develop into any type of cell in the body. They are the basis for the rapidly growing field of regenerative medicine, and their tremendous potential for transforming medicine earned Yamanaka the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The human heart cells in the Exploratorium exhibit were once skin cells. Using Yamanaka’s technology, the Gladstone scientists reprogrammed them in the lab to become iPSCs and then induced them to grow into a different type of cell: cardiomyocytes, or heart muscle cells.

Conklin’s team often uses tissue created from skin cells of patients who carry disease mutations and studies the tissue in the lab to better understand what causes cardiovascular disease and how to treat it. The cells on display are leftovers from experiments and because they were developed for specific research purposes, they cannot be used for other studies.

“Our goal was to take a phenomenon like the beating of heart cells and create an amazing, wonderful activity that allows someone with no biological knowledge to make a connection with the biological world,” says Yu.


Credit: Gladstone Institute

It’s not just visitors who enjoy the wonder of interacting with living heart cells. Conklin admits he gets a thrill every time he looks at the plate.

“At first, when you look at them, you don’t see anything happening because your eye doesn’t know where to look,” he explains. “But as soon as you see one area of ​​movement, you distinguish the others, and you realize that these heart cells are beating, and you get chills up your spine. It’s really a magical moment that conveys the excitement of scientific discovery.”

Possible through partnership

Human cell lines are extremely sensitive to contamination, so caring for them requires very specific skills and expertise. Conklin credits the highly skilled staff at the Exploratorium for making the exhibit a success.

“Not every museum can do that,” he says. “There’s a lot of work to maintain these cells, to keep them healthy and alive, but the Exploratorium has actually trained PhDs in molecular biology on staff. They’ve been incredible partners.”

The person responsible for the care of the cells in the exhibit is Dana Carrison-Stone, biologist and laboratory manager at the Exploratorium. She says that after heart cells have been beating for several months, they need to be replaced with new cells. Fortunately, Gladstone is nearby.

“The easiest way is to cycle,” says Carrison-Stone, an author of the study. “I pack a styrofoam container of dry ice, put it in my backpack, get on my bike and ride over to Gladstone, where I meet one of the scientists. They take me to the liquid nitrogen tanks where the cells are stored; I get a batch of replacements , put it in my backpack and return to the Exploratorium to begin the fusion process.”

The close collaboration between Gladstone and the museum makes the exhibition possible; she adds, “We couldn’t have this exhibit without Gladstone. The scientists are always there if I have questions or need help solving problems or solving problems.”

Gladstone scientists also help by sharing creative concepts for exhibits and helping the Exploratorium showcase leading science that will engage the general public.

“Big ideas for a museum exhibition often come from places like Gladstone,” says Yu. “Scientists suggest what’s at the cutting edge of scientific frontiers, and we think about how that can translate into a visitor experience. Then, we work together to see how we can make it happen. Gladstone provides deep resources, expertise and knowledge we really support each other, so we can create a really great experience for the public.”

More information:
Juan A. Perez-Bermejo et al, Give heart cells a beat: An interactive museum exhibit that synchronizes stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes with visitors’ heartbeats, Stem cell reports (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.stemcr.2024.01.004. www.cell.com/stem-cell-reports … 2213-6711(24)00007-9

Magazine Information:
Stem cell reports

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