The creation of cyborgs – the part human, part machine organisms which are a mainstay of science fiction – took a big step closer to reality this week as scientists from Harvard University announced the successful creation of the world’s first cyborg tissue.
In a paper published in the scientific journal Nature Materials a multi-institutional research team led by Charles M. Lieber, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard, and Daniel Kohane, a Harvard Medical School professor in the Department of Anesthesia at Children’s Hospital Boston, describes how they were able to develop a system for creating nanoscale ‘scaffolds’ which they could then seed with cells which would grow into tissue.
This new system will enable technological devices to effectively ‘communicate’ with living tissue, enabling the two systems – biological and technological – to work together more fully. Electronic devices implanted in the body would then be able to undertake detailed monitoring of the biological environment in which they were placed, allowing them to react accordingly in real time.
“The current methods we have for monitoring or interacting with living systems are limited,” said Lieber. “We can use electrodes to measure activity in cells or tissue, but that damages them. With this technology, for the first time, we can work at the same scale as the unit of biological system without interrupting it. Ultimately, this is about merging tissue with electronics in a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin.”
The team took inspiration from the way that biology itself operates:
“In the body, the autonomic nervous system keeps track of pH, chemistry, oxygen and other factors, and triggers responses as needed,” Kohane explained. “We need to be able to mimic the kind of intrinsic feedback loops the body has evolved in order to maintain fine control at the cellular and tissue level.”
In the short and medium term the applications of this technique are not quite as exciting as science fiction fans might hope. One of the main uses envisaged by the research team is to allow pharmaceutical companies to test new drugs on three dimensional artificial tissue samples, with integrated electronics to measure the precise reactions of the tissue when the drug is introduced.
In the longer term, however, and with a little bit of imagination, we can easily imagine this technique being used to automatically deliver drugs from implanted devices precisely when they are needed, or even to provide an interface between central control unit and human tissue in some form of upgraded ‘immune system 2.0′. Organ transplants of the future may also see upgraded organs with electronic control units being used instead of regular ones.