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Making a heart-to-heart connection

Making a heart-to-heart connection

Study shows power of collaboration between Exploratorium and Gladstone Institutes in bringing cutting-edge science exhibit to life

Woman holding sensors in front of exhibit
Credit: Gladstone Institutes


SAN FRANCISCO (February 8, 2024) — In a study published today by Stem Cell Reports, scientists from the Exploratorium and Gladstone Institutes share their experience collaborating on one of the museum’s most popular exhibits, “Give Heart Cells A Beat.” Designed to open a window into the microscopic world of the human heart, the exhibit is a first-of-its-kind experience that allows museum visitors to interact directly with living cardiomyocytes, or heart muscle cells.

As visitors approach the exhibit, a projected video displays beating heart cells — as many as 200,000 — on an oversized monitor. Visitors hold onto handlebar sensors that send their heart rate as an electrical signal to a nearby lab dish that holds living heart cells. Then, within seconds, they watch onscreen as the heart cells receive the signal and begin beating in sync with their own heart.

“It’s like having a lens into yourself because these same types of cells are within us — it’s an incredible experience for our visitors,” said Kristina Yu, PhD, senior director of science R&D for the Exploratorium. “We see them doing jumping jacks and running in place to elevate their heart rate, which quickly translates within the video image. The best thing is when they gesture to their friends to come over and try the experience themselves.”

Bruce Conklin, MD, a senior investigator at Gladstone, has been collaborating with Yu and others at the Exploratorium for more than 15 years, well before the exhibit opened in 2019 as part of the museum’s expanded Cells to Self collection. To their knowledge, “Give Heart Cells A Beat” is the first interactive museum exhibit to use live 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.

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

Woman and child standing in front of projection and exhibit
Credit: Gladstone Institutes


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

The idea for the heart exhibit came from a scientist in Conklin’s lab and began 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?

"Heart cells have a dynamic behavior in real time, which is beating, and they can respond to external signals,” says Juan Perez-Bermejo, PhD, a former postdoctoral fellow at Gladstone who played a crucial role in developing the exhibit. "No other cells can do this in a way that could be the center of an exhibit."

Meanwhile, maintaining and caring for living heart cells is a delicate task due to their susceptibility to contamination. Dana Carrison-Stone, biologist and laboratory manager at the Exploratorium, collaborates closely with Gladstone to replace the heart cells when needed, often biking the three miles between the two institutions to pick up new cells.

"The scientists at Gladstone are always there if I have questions or need help troubleshooting or problem solving," said Carrison-Stone, an author of the study. "We wouldn't be able to have this exhibit without them."

"Big ideas for a museum exhibit often come from places like Gladstone," Yu added. “The scientists suggest what is on the cutting edge of scientific frontiers and we think about how that can be translated into a really amazing experience for the public."

About Gladstone Institutes
Gladstone Institutes is an independent, nonprofit life science research organization that uses visionary science and technology to overcome disease. Established in 1979, it is located in the epicenter of biomedical and technological innovation, in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Francisco. Gladstone has created a research model that disrupts how science is done, funds big ideas, and attracts the brightest minds.

About the Exploratorium

Exploratorium logo

The Exploratorium is a portal to the astonishing scientific phenomena that animate our world and shape our actions. We create extraordinary learning experiences that ignite curiosity, upend perceptions, and inspire brave leaps forward. Since 1969, the Exploratorium’s museum in San Francisco has been home to a renowned collection of exhibits that draw together science, art, and human perception, and that have changed the way science is taught. Our award-winning programs provide a forum for the public to engage with artists, scientists, policymakers, educators, and tinkerers to explore the world around them. We celebrate diversity of thought, inspired investigation, and collaboration across all boundaries.

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