Franken-Jellyfish’s Swim May Inspire New Heart Therapies

A bioengineered water creature, made from heart cells of rats and silicone, came “alive” with an electric zap and swam like a jellyfish, according to its Harvard University and California Institute of Technology creators.

The research, published today in the journal Nature Biotechnology shows how scientists can create life-like forms by replicating the structure and function of simple creatures, in this case, a jellyfish. Its pulsating properties, like that of a human heart, also suggest that the eight-legged thing dubbed “Medusoid,” may one day lead to new therapeutic devices, such as pacemakers, made from organic substances, scientists said.

“As engineers, we’re very comfortable building with plastics and metals, but in the long term, we think the more viable approach is to build these components out of biological materials,” John Dabiri, a study author and professor at CalTech, said in an interview. “The big picture here is to try to develop tools to improve biomedical technology -- so think about repair of a damaged heart.”

Scientists crafted their Medusoid from the heart cells of rats to give it pumping action, a silicone polymer membrane to give it an elastic structure that enabled motion and then covered the membrane with a protein arranged in the same pattern as a jellyfish’s muscle assembly. They then released it into a laboratory pool of fluid and shocked it, Frankenstein-like, to spur its motion.

The Frankenstein analogy “certainly came to my mind when I started working on this project,” Dabiri said. “Our objective is more noble, I hope -- we want to use this to improve people’s lives.”

Viable Organs

Ultimately, Dabiri said he wants to create a version that doesn’t need an outside source of energy, a key step toward creating a viable replacement organ. Current artificial hearts are passive, and rely on an electrical charge to make them beat, much like the Medusoid relies on electrical currents to spur its eight arms to move.

An active replacement organ would be able to generate its own power by absorbing nutrients from a patient’s bloodstream, he said, just as real organs do, though that ability is years away from becoming reality.

Another goal of the research was to see if tissue engineering could be improved by an approach that focused on a function of an organism rather than its components.

That notion occurred to Kevin Kit Parker, a professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard and one of the study’s authors, on a visit to the New England Aquarium in Boston.

“I started looking at marine organisms that pump to survive,” he said in a statement. “Then I saw a jellyfish at the New England Aquarium, and I immediately noted both similarities and differences between how the jellyfish pumps and the human heart. The similarities help reveal what you need to do to design a bio-inspired pump.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ryan Flinn in San Francisco at rflinn@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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