It's getting to the point where there's less and less relevant distinction to be made between life science and physical science research. It was clearer when one lab had petri dishes and the other had circuitboards, but what happens when you have both? That's the case in the Harvard University labs of chemist Charles Lieber and his medical school colleague Daniel Kohane, where the bio research team has successfully created living tissue embedded with tiny nanowires capable of running an electrical current so subtle that it does not harm the tissue cells. These 3D bioelectronic structures could potentially both relay complex information about what's going on inside the tissue and receive signals from an outside source such as instructions for repairs. Several news outlets are calling it cyborg tissue and envision its future use in implants, prosthetics, or even some kind of therapeutic microbot. More immediately it will most likely be used for drug testing in labs, as a precursor to animal or human trials.
[Nanowired bio-scaffolds. Image by Lieber and Kohane, Harvard University, via New Scientist]
According to Dr. Lieber (in an interview for HarvardScience):
"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.”
[Photo of Dr. Lieber by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer]
Dr. Kohane adds:
“In the body, the autonomic nervous system keeps track of pH, chemistry, oxygen, and other factors, and triggers responses as neededl. 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.”
The Harvard team (in conjunction with colleagues at MIT and Boston Children's Hospital) published their research findings recently in Nature Materials, under the title: Macroporous nanowire nanoelectronic scaffolds for synthetic tissues. One of the lead authors was Dr. Bozhi Tian (left), a former Harvard and MIT postdoc who is now a professor at the University of Chicago. Tian was earlier this year named one of MITTechnology Review's TR35 (see 35 Innovators Under 35: Bozhi Tian). Also lead authoring the paper were Jia Liu, a Harvard graduate student, and Tal Dvir, a former MIT postdoc. Additional authors were Lihua Jin (Harvard PhD student), Jonathan H. Tsui (former research assistant in the Kohane Lab), Quan Qing (research associate in the Lieber Lab), Zhigang Suo (Harvard Professor), and Robert Langer (MIT professor).
[Image of Bozhi Tian by Michael Gillette, courtesy of MIT]
The overlapping of organic and inorganic (or biologic and non-biologic) seems to headline the science news increasingly often these days, including in this blog. Perhaps it's the surprise value, though in another few years we may be so used to bioengineered cells and biocompatible electronics that they won't cause us to do a doubletake or wonder about just what constitutes life. Cybernetic organisms (cyborgs) were fantastical creations when the term was coined decades ago, and they mainly appeared in cautionary science fiction with suped-up heroes or villains. In reality, the interface of mechanical and biological is largely happening at the nanoscale (which sounds like an oxymoron), and though militaries around the world are interested in applications for the new technologies, it'll probably look less like Ironman and more like a familiar but healthier version of our old fashioned bodies.
Other bio-crossover Science Market Update blogs you may be interested in reading:
- Penn Research Lab Tackles 3D Bio Printing Vascular Challenge, Finds Solution
- Cincinnati Bioscience Research Creates Superbugs to Eat Waste, Produce Energy
- UCLA Research Wizards Use Gaming to Diagnose Malaria in Telepathology Project
Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. will be on the Harvard Medical School campus next on February 21, 2013 for our 7th Annual Boston BioResearch Product Faire event. With life sciences researchers from Harvard Medical, Dana-Farber, Joslin Diabetes, Children's Hospital, MGH and other institutions in the Longwood medical neighborhood attending, this is an excellent opportunity for scientists and laboratory equipment suppliers to network and discuss their research needs and solutions.
To see our 2013 show schedule, click here. For a funding report and info on the Boston show specifically, click the button: