Biology

Harvard team grows cyborg mini-organs out of stem cells

Harvard team grows cyborg mini...
A close-up of a cardiac "cyborg organoid" with an embedded nanoelectronic mesh visible inside
A close-up of a cardiac "cyborg organoid" with an embedded nanoelectronic mesh visible inside
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The nanoelectronic mesh embedded into the organoids has a curvy structure, allowing it to stretch while retaining its electronic properties
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The nanoelectronic mesh embedded into the organoids has a curvy structure, allowing it to stretch while retaining its electronic properties
A diagram showing how the cyborg organoids are made
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A diagram showing how the cyborg organoids are made
A close-up of a cardiac "cyborg organoid" with an embedded nanoelectronic mesh visible inside
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A close-up of a cardiac "cyborg organoid" with an embedded nanoelectronic mesh visible inside

Scientists could almost build a whole mini-body out of the mini-organs that have been grown over the last few years. But cell development has traditionally been tricky to study, thanks largely to the difficulty in getting sensors in there without damaging the organs. Now, researchers from Harvard have developed a way to create "cyborg organoids" by integrating nanoelectronics into cell cultures.

To learn about diseases, development or drugs, scientists often have to experiment on cells grown in a flat culture in a dish, or on animals. But in both cases, the results don't always carry across to the human body. Simplified mini-organs or organoids are a closer analogy, and in recent years scientists have created mini versions of the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and stomach.

But it can be hard to study these miniature, 3D versions of organs in detail. Generally, sensors are too big or inflexible to cram into the organoids without damaging the cells. So the researchers from Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) found a way to integrate the sensors right from the start. The team calls them "cyborg organoids," but we're severely tempted to coin the term "cyborganoids."

A diagram showing how the cyborg organoids are made
A diagram showing how the cyborg organoids are made

The researchers started with nanoelectronic sensors in the form of stretchable meshes. These are made up of a grid of tiny sensors, with curvy connectors running between them. This pattern has been seen in the past in wearable electronic devices, where it's useful for its ability to stretch and remain electronically active.

These nanomeshes were then placed onto a sheet of stem cells, which gradually grew around them. In time, the cells grew into the 3D organoid structures, reconfiguring the electronic meshes along with them. The end result was cyborganoids – the organoids with fully integrated sensors.

"I think if we can develop nanoelectronics that are so flexible, stretchable, and soft that they can grow together with developing tissue through their natural development process, the embedded sensors can measure the entire activity of this developmental process," says Jia Liu, senior author of the study. "The end result is a piece of tissue with a nanoscale device completely distributed and integrated across the entire three-dimensional volume of the tissue."

The nanoelectronic mesh embedded into the organoids has a curvy structure, allowing it to stretch while retaining its electronic properties
The nanoelectronic mesh embedded into the organoids has a curvy structure, allowing it to stretch while retaining its electronic properties

In tests, the researchers were able to differentiate the stem cells into cardiomyocytes, a type of heart cell, and then use the embedded sensors to monitor and record the activity of the cells for 90 days.

The team says the technique could be used to study how cells develop and differentiate into various tissues, as well as find ways to develop new drugs and other treatments.

"This method allows us to continuously monitor the developmental process and understand how the dynamics of individual cells start to interact and synchronize during the entire developmental process," says Liu. "It could be used to turn any organoid into cyborg organoids, including brain and pancreas organoids."

The research was published in the journal Nano Letters.

Source: Harvard SEAS

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