The Medical University of Hannover (MHH) in the German Lower Saxony is searching to recruit a professor who can grow human heart tissue from stem cells (see official call here). If you think you are the right kind of miracle doctor, you must hurry to apply: the deadline is August 26th 2016.
The recruiting MHH department is the clinic for heart, thorax, transplant and vascular surgery and its subdivision of the Leibniz Research Laboratories for Biotechnology and Artificial Organs (LEBAO). LEBAO was established by the heart surgeon and clinic head Axel Haverich, whose goals included creating stem cell-derived organs such as tracheas (hence the transient recruitment of the now disgraced thorax surgeon Paolo Macchiarini to his MHH department at the beginning of the century). Both Macchiarini’s and Haverich’s main objective was to grow a living human heart in a plastic box inside tissue culture incubator (the contraption is also known under the more fancy term “bioreactor”). In fact, Haverich repeatedly predicted to be able to achieve this even before his upcoming retirement (see my report here). The method was originally supposed to be that of stripping dead donor hearts of living tissue and seeding these carcasses with “magic” bone marrow stem cells. Later on, Haverich imagined it more high-tech: 3D laser printers would shoot cells of various types into a shape of a heart, and voila, it would come alive and start beating, ready to save another human life.
The trachea regeneration attempts were dropped by the Haverich team in 2006, as the MHH press spokesman Stefan Zorn told me in May 2016. The heart regeneration research however continues even now, though according to Zorn “in no connection to the work by Prof Macchiarini”. Nevertheless, no hearts, neither whole nor in pieces, were ever grown in Hannover (certainly not due to any lack of funding). Haverich thus focused on manufacturing heart valves with the help of his company Corlife (whether these heart valves are really regenerated and growing together with their juvenile recipients, as he insisted, is yet another issue).
The new professorial recruitment to Haverich’s LEBAO is probably expected to make the founder’s dream of a bioreactor-grown heart come true. These are the rather restrictive scientific requirements of the MHH tenure-track professorship call, which for some reason was placed in German only:
“The candidate should present a proven expertise in the subject area of cardiac tissue engineering and have acquired an international reputation in the field of stem cell biology, biomaterials and / or bioreactor technology”.
There are a number of scientists worldwide who work on differentiating in vitro heart cells from human induced pluripotent stem cells. Not all of them will be able to read this regionally placed German-language job posting though. In any case, I cannot think of any researcher who truly succeeded in growing transplantable heart tissue in a “bioreactor” from stem cells, unless of course Macchiarini is not a pathological liar after all. The Italian surgeon also speaks very good German, with a Swiss accent (since he grew up in Switzerland), and is in urgent need of a job, being sacked from his professorship by the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Finally, Macchiarini conveniently holds since 2001 an adjunct professorship at the MHH.
Even if Macchiarini should fail to make this spectacular comeback to Hannover, a bit of warning to all the hopeful regenerative medicine artists out there, readying themselves to grow hearts with Haverich. It is possible that this open tenure-track position at MHH is not really open. The unrealistic restrictions may simply be meant to discourage and to disqualify any competing candidates. This would also explain why the job posting was issued in German only, running for only 4 weeks during the vacation month August. The MHH published the call (which closes on August 26th 2016) on July 27th 2016. German academic job portals featured the advertisement even later. So sorry everyone, this professorship was most likely already taken before it was even posted.
Whoever the lucky person is, one can only hope that MHH will not be in too much a hurry to test what they grew inside some human patients. Haverich’s “regenerated” heart valves were (according to the publicly available evidence) first trialled in 2002 on at least two Moldavian children, years before sheep were considered as an alternative test model (see my report here). To me, MHH refused to deny, comment or share any documentation on that human-first conundrum; their speaker Zorn also remained silent as to which scientific goals exactly MHH was pursuing with the advertised recruitment. The question is therefore: did MHH learn anything from the quackery and patient abuse by Macchiarini and his colleagues, which began in the Hannover laboratories? Will there be further ethically questionable human experiments because of someone’s dream of regenerative medicine fame?