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Big Idea

Bringing the human heart to life

Artist Dario Robleto and cardiovascular scientist Doris Taylor are both experts on the human heart. They learned even more about it from each other.

By Ceci Menchetti

As a young boy, artist Dario Robleto came across an image while flipping through an archaeology book that transfixed him: a cave painting, drawn tens of thousands of years ago, depicting the outline of a woolly mammoth with an ochre-colored shape inside it. It was thought to be the oldest visual representation of the heart.

Did the people who drew it intend merely to instruct hunters where to aim their spears? Or was this evidence that the human tendency to invest the heart with weighty metaphorical significance — connecting it to the soul, life, love, and death — had pre-modern roots?

“I’m curious to know why, in history, no matter what science says about ‘where we are’ in our bodies, the metaphor of the heart will not budge,” he explains. “We have heart-to-hearts, we wear our hearts on our sleeves, we’re cold-hearted.”

For Robleto, it’s not just an artistic pondering. “I argue to scientists that they’re making a mistake if they don’t account for that — if they just say ‘The heart is just a pump, let’s move on.’”

Dr. Doris Taylor, a cardiovascular scientist and the director of Regenerative Medicine Research at the Texas Heart Institute, agrees. She confronts the heart’s complexity — medical and metaphorical — in her lab every day.

“Are we making a pump? Unequivocally,” Taylor says of her pioneering bioartificial heart design research. “Are we only making a pump? No.”

Despite their vastly different professional backgrounds, both Taylor and Robleto are in the business of unlocking the mysteries of the human heart. That shared interest has helped spark an unlikely friendship and a dialogue that informs both of their work: multimedia art rooted in biological data for Robleto, and for Taylor, scientific research that could change the future of organ transplantation.  

Are we making a pump? Unequivocally. Are we only making a pump? No.

“I want to make the case that maybe there’s a better way to design an artificial heart when you factor in input from the humanities and the arts,” he continues. “Dr. Taylor is unusual in that she’s really embraced what I have to say.”

It’s the type of interdisciplinary collaboration that Robleto, Taylor, and others hope becomes integral to the future of ambitious, academic projects like theirs. “Culturally, we have inherited centuries-long assumptions about [art and science’s] polar opposition,” says Jennifer L. Roberts, Faculty Director of the Arts at the Radcliffe Institute. “We need to acknowledge our deeper similarities.”

Robleto’s multimedia installation at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, “Unknown and Solitary Seas,” is on display through January 18, 2020. His fascination with the heart has moved forward in history from the upper Paleolithic era to the 19th century, when the first pulse waves of a human heart were recorded. In steel and brass sculptures, lithograph printings, and sound and video, the artist has painstakingly converted these scientific data into artistic representations of individual heart beats.

Dario Robleto’s multimedia installation at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, “Unknown and Solitary Seas,” is on display through January 18, 2020. Photo by  Julia Featheringill

In the exhibition, Robleto incorporates modern, digital technologies like sound engineering with the more laborious techniques used two centuries ago. He creates the lithographs by replicating the original process: A stylus made of a single human hair lightly traces pulse waves into soot from a candle flame. The resulting waveforms, at the time, were viewed as manifestations of the essence of consciousness.

“I’m honoring the way scientists [first] figured it out, as far as recording a pulse-wave. But I’m also doing things they never could have imagined,” he says. “They made a sound recording, but they didn’t know that at the time. Technology allows access to that information in a totally new way for a contemporary viewer. My work is a type of historical transplant in the sense that I’m trying to bring forward this knowledge from the deep past.”

Recognizing philosophical similarities between this kind of “historical transplant” and actual heart transplants, a friend of Taylor’s introduced her to Robleto. Their discussion began with Robleto’s artistic insistence that the power of the heart as a metaphor matters — a hypothesis perhaps more easily proven in the humanities than the sciences. But biomedical research, Taylor believes, can also depend on it.

“If it were simply a complicated pump,” Taylor says, “transplants would work every time.” But they don’t. Transplants can be rejected, and artificial replacements aren’t always a permanent solution. And there are a finite number of viable donor hearts available. These challenges are why Taylor and her team have spent more than 10 years conducting research on a possible alternative, known as the ghost heart.

To create a ghost heart, the team takes a human or animal heart from a cadaver and washes it clean of all its cells with a simple soapy solution. The ghost-like white material that remains — the extracellular matrix, or ECM — can be regenerated with living stem cells. Eventually, the organ begins to beat again on its own.

“We don’t really know what they’re doing when we put the cells back in every day,” Taylor explains. “We just know that they start acting like the right kind of heart cells once they’re there.”

Eventually, she thinks, the research could lead to tailor-made artificial organs, injected with a transplant patient’s own stem cells.

Even if the exact mechanisms that make the ghost heart possible remain unclear, it still takes a lot of work to keep them going. “We have to babysit these hearts 24/7, 365. They have to be kept warm. They have to have oxygen,” says Taylor. “They’re like your kids: They want to eat every day, and they get temperamental. You care about their future.”

From all that caregiving, Taylor has a practical understanding of Robleto’s ideas about the heart’s cultural significance as a center of empathy and love.

“The first question I ask when I get to the lab every morning is ‘How are the hearts?’” she says.

Acknowledging the parallels between their work makes Robleto and Taylor more likely to effect truly transformative dialogue between the arts and sciences, Roberts thinks.

“Both sets of disciplines engage with nature, space, and matter in order to exceed or reorganize existing knowledge,” she says. “And both involve humility in the face of complexity.”

Robleto agrees. “Science is an act of humility because it connects you into a larger network,” he says. “It’s this whole other reality around us every second of the day, just as telescopes have shown that we’re part of something much bigger in the universe.”

As Robleto continues to show and create art about the heart, Taylor has been an important collaborator, joining him for public conversations in which the two explore their shared interest — and keep each other humble. The two will lecture together again in February at Taylor’s alma mater, Mississippi University for Women. And Robleto continues to draw inspiration from the scientific community. He recently published a book of research done as an artist-in-residence at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering, and he is currently working with scientists at Northwestern University developing programs at the intersection of art, science, and ethics.

Beyond the loftier, philosophical benefits, both the artist and scientist have gained something even more fundamental from the other’s perspective: a jolt of energy. “Dario has gotten us excited about how what we’re doing might fit into a history of discovery,” says Taylor. “You don’t imagine that when you’re slogging away in the lab.”

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Ceci Menchetti is Experience Magazine's partnerships and engagement editor.


Top photo of Dreams and Emotions of the 19th Century, part of the Unknown and Solitary Seas exhibit, courtesy of Inman Gallery, Houston