At 84, Sharon Steinberg lives an active and social life, but it wasn’t always this way. Diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, she experienced breathing difficulties that made going anywhere a challenge.

“I was having trouble walking a quarter of a block without stopping to breathe,” says Sharon.

Cardiomyopathy weakens the heart, impeding its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body. Not only does it dramatically affect quality of life, it can lead to life-threatening conditions such as arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), blood clots, heart attack and heart failure. To help Sharon get back on her feet, her physicians implanted a defibrillator to keep her heartbeat steady.

“My doctors fixed me up with a defibrillator and now I have no trouble going for a walk,” says Sharon.

Heart in a Dish program

Dr. Nadia Giannetti, cardiologist at the McGill University Health Centre and co-lead of the Heart in a Dish program, shows Sharon Steinberg her lab-grown heart cells, which beat just like a heart.

Cardiomyopathy has no cure. Wishing to advance research into her condition, Sharon enrolled in a new study called Heart in a Dish, which is searching for new treatments for cardiomyopathy.

Led by cardiologist Dr. Nadia Giannetti of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and Dr. Terry Hébert of McGill University, the Heart in a Dish program is growing patients’ heart tissue in petri dishes to enable close study. From a patient’s blood sample, the research team extracts stem cells—special cells that have the ability to develop into any cell type. Over the course of two to three months, the stem cells grow into heart cells. Like something out of science fiction, the lab-grown heart tissue even beats.

Just a few weeks ago, Sharon had the opportunity to see her beating heart tissue in person.

“I looked through a microscope at the cells in a tiny little dish and it was vibrating. You can feel the same motion that you feel when you put your hand to your chest,” says Sharon.

In fact, the heartbeat emanating from the dish is unique to Sharon. Like a fingerprint, no two people have exactly the same heartbeat.

A Montrealer through and through, Sharon is proud to support life-changing research in her city. Her family founded the Steinberg grocery chain, which was a Montreal staple from 1917 to the 1990s.

“My grandmother [Ida Steinberg] and her family came to Montreal from Hungary. They opened a grocery store on St-Laurent and they prospered,” says Sharon.

The success of the first store led them to open a second location, which led to another. At its height, Steinberg’s had over 170 locations and the family owned numerous subsidiary companies.

Growing up, Sharon lived in an apartment over a Steinberg’s store. She recalls helping the cashiers as a little girl.

“By growing each individual’s heart muscle,

we can see what the problem is and

test ways to improve their health.” – Nadia Giannetti

“It was war time, and we collected ration stamps. They had to be attached to a piece of paper and sent to the government, and I loved sticking them on the sheets,” says Sharon. “It was my first ambition to be a cashier.”

When Ida Steinberg passed away in 1942, her five sons took over the store. Sharon’s father, Jack, was in charge of maintenance, while her uncle Sam took the role of president. Several of her uncles lived with heart conditions, adding further meaning to her participation in the Heart in a Dish program.

On the day Sharon visited the program’s lab at the Research Institute of the MUHC, she felt like a celebrity. The program’s doctors and researchers were all there to greet her, and CBC and CTV news crews were present to capture the unique moment. Foremost in Sharon’s mind were the insights her heart tissue could provide.

“The researchers are going to use my heart tissue to experiment with different ways of treating my cardiomyopathy,” says Sharon.

Growing heart tissue outside the body is the ultimate in personalized medicine. Instead of receiving a one-size-fits-all drug or treatment plan, each patient receives a tailored approach.

“By growing each individual’s heart muscle, we can see what the problem is and test ways to improve their health,” says Dr. Giannetti.

Researchers can tailor treatments to each individual patient by testing potential drugs on the heart in a dish first. This method ensures that each patient receives the optimal treatment right away.

“We hope that in the near future, we’ll be able to personalize the way we treat people with weak heart muscles to help them live longer, healthier lives,” says Dr. Giannetti.

Sharon was so moved by the Heart in a Dish project that she made a significant donation to the MUHC Foundation to support Dr. Giannetti and Dr. Hébert’s ground-breaking work.

“I really believe that when you live well, you have an obligation to share. I feel very strongly about that. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money—all the small amounts add up to something bigger,” says Sharon.

“The researchers are going to use my heart tissue

to experiment with different ways of

treating my cardiomyopathy.” – Sharon Steinberg

With Sharon’s support, Dr. Giannetti and Dr. Hébert now have 25 hearts beating in dishes at the MUHC, and are advancing cardiology research to help others struggling with heart conditions.

The Heart in a Dish project is supported by the MUHC Foundation through its Dream Big. Fix Broken Hearts campaign. To learn more and to donate toward cardiology research and care at the MUHC, visit