Your muscles help you move, expand your lungs so you can breathe, contract your heart so it pumps blood. When your muscle is injured, a tiny population of cells is activated to help the repair process. It’s these muscle stem cells that Professor Penney Gilbert from the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto wants to capture and learn from.
As we age, our muscles’ ability to repair themselves decreases and we lose muscle mass. Muscle can also degenerate due to diseases like muscular dystrophy or cancer. If we could figure out what gives muscle stem cells the power to repair and then augment those powers, we could use our own cells to heal ourselves. Like creating our own little team of superheroes to save our muscles from degeneration.
“You’re the best source [of cells] for yourself. The cells are there… they just need a little tweaking,” says Gilbert.
Professor Gilbert also studies diseases of the muscle like Duchenne muscular dystrophy. She is creating a model of the neuromuscular junction – where your nerve cells and muscle cells meet – in a dish. This could allow study of the biology of disease but also serve as a method for screening drugs.
“It gives us just a limitless possibility to understand how that tissue works.”