August 30, 2012 3:37 pm
“One more robot learns to be // Something more than a machine,” purrs a popular Flaming Lips song. Now, Harvard researchers are approaching that dreamy reality. They infused rat heart cells with wires and transistors that monitor the tissue’s electrical impulses. In the future, the New Scientist reports, those cyborg elements might even control the organic tissue’s behavior, too.
“It allows one to effectively blur the boundary between electronic, inorganic systems and organic, biological ones,” says Charles Lieber, leader of the cyborg tissue team.
Artificial tissues can be grown from biological materials, but researchers had not succeeded in making them electrically active. Likewise, electrical components have been added to cultured tissues, but they’ve never been integrated into their structures, so remained only surface additions. Lieber’s team combined these two research accomplishments to create their electrically alive cyborg tissue. To do this, they designed 3D networks of conductive nanowires and implanted them with silicon sensors. The flexible, tiny wires allowed the tissue to continue growing around a scaffold containing biological elements like collagen.
They grew rat neurons, heart cells and muscles in their hybrid web. The heart cells eventually began to contract, and the researchers followed the rate of their beats using the mechanical network’s readings. They also experimented by adding a drug to the tissue, which increased its rate of beating and thus indicated that it was responding like any normal rat heart would.
Moving on from rats, the team grew a human blood vessel, about 1.5 centimeters in length, and included their cyborg wires both inside and outside the homegrown circulatory tube. They recorded its electrical signals and detected patterns that they say could eventually give clues to inflammation, impending heart disease or tumor growth if such a system was implanted into living bodies.
The researchers say their next step is to “wire up tissue and communicate with it in the same way a biological system does.” In other words, to bridge the void between the living and the machine.
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