Growing skeletal muscle

Researchers have discovered a way to build three-dimensional organoids that resemble how skeletal muscle develops in the fetus.

Cells containing the protein Pax7 (green) sitting at the outer edge of a developing skeletal muscle organoid that has been stained with a marker (red) for a specific protein in skeletal muscle. Image credit: Mavrommatis et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Humans contains around 650 skeletal muscles which allow the body to move around and maintain its posture. Skeletal muscles are made up of individual cells that bundle together into highly organized structures. If this group of muscles fail to develop correctly in the embryo and/or fetus, this can lead to muscular disorders that can make it painful and difficult to move.

One way to better understand how skeletal muscles are formed, and how this process can go wrong, is to grow them in the laboratory. This can be achieved using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), human adult cells that have been ‘reprogrammed’ to behave like cells in the embryo that can develop in to almost any cell in the body. The iPSCs can then be converted into specific cell types in the laboratory, including the cells that make up skeletal muscle.

Here, Mavrommatis et al. created a protocol for developing iPSCs into three-dimensional organoids which resemble how cells of the skeletal muscle look and arrange themselves in the fetus. To form the skeletal muscle organoid, Mavrommatis et al. treated iPSCs that were growing in a three-dimensional environment with various factors that are found early on in development. This caused the iPSCs to organize themselves in to embryonic and fetal structures that will eventually give rise to the parts of the body that contain skeletal muscle, such as the limbs. Within the organoid were cells that produced Pax7, a protein commonly found in myogenic progenitors that specifically mature into skeletal muscle cells in the fetus. Pax 7 is also present in ‘satellite cells’ that help to regrow damaged skeletal muscle in adults. Indeed, Mavrommatis et al. found that the myogenic progenitors produced by the organoid were able to regenerate muscle when transplanted in to adult mice.

These findings suggest that this organoid protocol can generate cells that will give rise to skeletal muscle. In the future, these lab-grown progenitors could potentially be created from cells isolated from patients and used to repair muscle injuries. The organoid model could also provide new insights in to how skeletal muscles develop in the fetus, and how genetic mutations linked with muscular disorders disrupt this process.