Cyborgs, or cybernetic organisms, are creatures in which biological tissues and artificial additions are closely intertwined. Well-known recent examples include moths and beetles that can be controlled through the use of electronic steering mechanisms attached to their brains.
But, the meshing of biological and electronic parts is still quite crude in these first-generation cyborgs. Now, a new study details an initial step towards a more thorough integration at finer scale.
They started from biomaterial scaffolds, which are currently used in, for example, regenerative medicine where they support tissue growth. However, these 3D scaffolds are unable to monitor the properties of the tissue. Until now, that is.
The research team developed flexible and macroporous nanowire electronic scaffolds (called nanoES) and used these to construct hybrids with biological materials, both from synthetic and natural origin. They were combined with neurons, heart and smooth muscle cells. Aided by these nanoES, the researchers were able to monitor the real-time electrical activity in the heart muscle cells, the response to drugs in the nerve and heart cells, and pH changes in the smooth muscle tissue of a blood vessel.
Of course, this is just monitoring the activity in biological tissue, but the next step is establishing two-way communication, where the nanoES can monitor, but also change, the activity.
And so, the fine-grained, functional integration of biological and electronic material comes closer.
(Also, see the New Scientist article concerning the study.)
Tian, B., Liu, J., Dvir, T., Jin, L., Tsui, J.H., Qing, Q., Suo, Z., Langer, R., Kohane, D.S., & Lieber, C.M. (2012). Macroporous nanowire nanoelectronic scaffolds for synthetic tissues. Nature Materials DOI: 10.1038/nmat3404