Scientists Uncovering How Cells Become Organs


Finding could help test and monitor patient-specific drug treatments and transplantations.

Researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have uncovered how a cells grow to become full fledge organs by growing simplified versions known as organoids with fully integrated sensors.

Their work published in Nano Letters produced what they called cyborg organoids, which may have given some insight into how the early stages of organ development occur.

Apart from helping to answer fundamental questions about biology, the researchers believe that cyborg organoids could be used to test and monitor patient-specific drug treatments and potentially for transplantations.

Previously, the process that that involves a small group of cells organize growing to become an organ such as the heart, brain, or kidney has remained an enigma partly because of the unavailability of any sensor small enough to capture this process without causing any form of damage to the cells.

Jia Liu, assistant professor of bioengineering at SEAS and senior author of the study said this work was inspired by the natural organ development process in high school.

Liu said, “I thought that if we could develop nanoelectronics that are so flexible, stretchable, and soft that they could grow together with developing tissue through their natural development process, the embedded sensors could measure the entire activity of this developmental process,”

The end result, he said “is a piece of tissue with a nanoscale device completely distributed and integrated across the entire 3D volume of the tissue.”

This type of device emerges from the work that Liu began as a graduate student in the lab of Charles M. Lieber, the Joshua and Beth Friedman University Professor. In Lieber’s lab, Liu once developed flexible, mesh-like nanoelectronics that could be injected in specific regions of tissue.

Building on that design, Liu and his team increased the stretchability of the nanoelectronics by changing the shape of the mesh from straight lines to serpentine structures (similar to those used in wearable electronics). Then, the team transferred the mesh nanoelectronics onto a 2D sheet of stem cells, where the cells covered and interwove with the nanoelectronics via cell-cell attraction forces. As the stem cells began to morph into a 3D structure, the nanoelectronics seamlessly reconfigured themselves accordingly, resulting in fully grown 3D organoids with embedded sensors.

The stem cells then differentiated into cardiomyocytes ( heart cells) and the researchers were able to monitor and record the electrophysiological activity 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 synchronize during the entire developmental process,” said Liu, adding that it could be used to turn any organoid into cyborg organoids, including brain and pancreas organoids.



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