In order to watch how human organs develop, researchers have created microscopic cyborg sensors that won’t damage our cells.
How does a small group of cells become a brain, heart or kidney? While seemingly a basic biological question, the answer has long been out of reach for scientists, or at least until now.
In a paper published to Nano Letters, researchers from Harvard’s John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences described their newfound ability to grow simplified organs enhanced with ‘cyborg’ abilities. This includes fully integrated nanosensors that offer scientists a rare glimpse of the early stages of organ development.
Speaking of the breakthrough, senior author of the study, Jia Liu, said: “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.”
“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.”
Cells and nanoelectronics merge
The device originated from work Liu began as a graduate student, which led to the development of flexible, mesh-like nanoelectronics that could be injected into human tissue. Building on this design, the engineers increased the stretchability of the nanoelectronics by changing the shape of the mesh from straight lines to serpentine structures, commonly used in wearables.
The mesh nanoelectronics were then transferred onto a 2D sheet of stem cells, which wove together via cell-cell attraction. As the stem cells morphed into 3D structures, the nanoelectronics reconfigured themselves along with the cells, resulting in fully-grown 3D organoids with embedded sensors.
Early testing has returned promising results, such as monitoring and recording the electrophysiological activity of the heart for 90 days.
“This method allows us to continuously monitor the developmental process and understand how the dynamics of individual cells start to interact and synchronise during the entire developmental process,” said Liu. “It could be used to turn any organoid into cyborg organoids, including brain and pancreas organoids.”