By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

In the hopes of facilitating the development of tissue-engineered hearts, the National Institutes of Health is funding a $10 million effort to grow patches of cardiac muscle in the laboratory setting.

The five-year research project is being headed by bioengineering researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle and includes San Diego-based Advanced Tissue Sciences Inc., as well as researchers from the Seattle-based Hope Heart Institute, the University of Toronto and Advanced Polymer Systems Inc., of Redwood City, Calif.

"We are pretty excited about this grant," said Jana Stoudemire, senior director of corporate communications for Advanced Tissue Sciences (ATS). "We're very happy to be part of this grant as a collaborator. It really recognizes the tremendous potential for tissue engineering."

The grant really represents the first step in a two-stage process. The grant will be used primarily to grow thick patches of cardiac muscle under the direction of University of Washington bioengineering professor Buddy Ratner, who is serving as principle investigator for the project. Those muscle patches could be grafted onto weakened hearts in order to improve their efficiency.

Once the researchers can develop these cardiac tissue patches, they will apply for another five-year grant to develop a "ventricular tube" and a full ventricle. The ventricular tube is a cylinder of rolled cardiac muscle with valves that could assist a weakened heart with pumping. The goal is to enable scientists to grow a fully functioning human heart.

ATS specializes in growing cells into 3-dimensional products on a scaffold. The company will be using its expertise and patented technology to enable the cardiac tissue-engineering project. Using its technology, ATS has developed Dermagraft - a living, metabolically active skin implant derived from fibroblasts from discarded human foreskin tissue. Dermagraft is being developed for the treatment of foot ulcers.

ATS' stock (NASDAQ: ATIS) closed Monday at $4.187, up 25 cents. Advanced Polymer (NASDAQ:APOS) gained 6 cents to close at $3.687.