Science Fiction Meets Reality: Cyborg Tissue Unveiled

Science Fiction Meets Reality: Cyborg Tissue Unveiled

Written by Alex Reid
Posted August 30, 2012

When you hear the word “cyborg” you probably think of the ethically confusing human/robot hybrids made popular by science-fiction movies, but according to researchers at Harvard University, cyborgs are anything but fiction, though not in the way you might imagine them.

Charles Lieber and his team of scientists have been developing cyborg tissue by combining biological cells with 3D networks of tiny wires, a feat which has never been accomplished before.

In the past, electrical components have been added to already formed tissue, but Lieber's team is the first to integrate the nonorganic material into the structure of cells. Using heart cells of rats, the scientists were able to monitor each cell's electrical impulses. This technology could lead to major medical breakthroughs for humans in the future.

The team also consisted of Harvard Medical School professor Daniel Kohane, who explained how the automatic nervous system served as inspiration for the meshlike networks of silicon nanowires. “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,” said Kohane.

Lieber's team also used the technology to construct a 1.5-centimeter-long blood vessel using human cells, and “by recording electrical signals from inside and outside the vessel,” says Will Ferguson, “the team was able to detect electrical patterns that they say could give clues to inflammation, whether tissue has undergone changes that make it prone to tumor formation or suggest impending heart disease.”

The most likely near-term use of the technology, according to Lieber, may come from the pharmaceutical industry as researchers will be able to test the effects of drugs on actual human tissue without having to take the risk of using human test subjects. Other eventual uses may include implanting patches of tissue in the body to monitor for problems and even disperse medication when a problem is detected.

Researchers also envision taking the cyborg tissue even further to the point where the wires not only monitor the behavior of cells, but actually control their behavior.

While the cyborg tissue being developed at Harvard may not look like the vision Hollywood has created of a robotic-human future, it is certainly a great stride toward medical developments that could improve the quality of drug manufacturing and medical treatments, potentially improving the quality of countless lives.