A team at Harvard University has developed a cyborg tissue material that is a literal mesh of nanoscale electronics and cells, able to support cell growth while at the same time monitoring biological activities at the cellular level.
Among the team to device such a material are Bozhi Tian (one of Technology Review's 35 Innovators Under 35 this year); Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber; Daniel Kohane, director of the Laboratory for Biomaterials and Drug Delivery at Boston Children's Hospital; and Robert Langer, a chemical engineer and Institute Professor at MIT.
he above image depicts smarts cells: "Alginate (white), a seaweed-derived material used in conventional cell scaffolds, is deposited around nanoscale metal wires (false-coloured in brown) to form a three-dimensional electronic scaffold."
The nanoelectronic scaffolds were made from a thin mesh of metal nanowires, either straight or kinked, dotted with tiny transistors that detect electrical activity. The researchers folded or rolled the mesh into a three-dimensional structure to simulate a piece of tissue or a blood vessel, respectively. The result is a scaffold that is both porous and flexible-not an easy feat for electronics.
The scaffold was then seeded with cells or merged with conventional biomaterials, such as collagen, into hybrid scaffolds.
According to Lieber, "These scaffolds are mechanically the softest electronic materials that have ever been made."
The team tested the cyborg scaffold's sensing capabilities in living cells; they grew neurons in the framework and successfully monitored their firing activity "in response to excitatory neurotransmitters". They also tracked changes in pH level on either side of a simplified blood vessel, and observed subtle differences in the way heart cells on one side of the tissue beat from heart cells on the other side.
Numerous pharmaceutical companies have already expressed interest in the technology, specifically with regards to the way such a medical advancement could identify the ways in which various drugs respond when localised in difference tissues. [TechnologyReview]