What do the terms biorobotics and biocomputing mean to you?
For some of you in the know, you may think to bring up the research to design robotic systems that mimic living movements and activities, a la the MIT Cheetah robot. And, while this is indeed a form of biorobotics, it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from where we are going today.
Instead, turn your mind more to subjects of cybernetic implants and nanotechnology, but more biological in design. That’s what we’re covering today. Or at least one interesting new accomplishment in the field.
CRISPR Is Just One Part
Degenerative disorders are some of the hardest cases to treat in the medical world. Such as when parts of the body begin breaking down and it isn’t as simple as ordering a new organ as a replacement like with other diseases. Instead, when someone is dealing with situations like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, doctors often only can look for ways to slow down the breakdown of the body’s tissues, rather than an actual cure.
Sure, modern gene therapy appears to be on the verge of finding actual cures for these issues. One of the first experiments conducted with CRISPR when it was newly discovered was to treat muscular dystrophy in mice. This was done by replacing the faulty exon in the genome that was no longer properly producing dystrophin.
For now, CRISPR is only capable of inserting a gene that makes a shortened version of the dystrophin protein instead of the full working copy. But even if the technology advances enough to flawlessly replace a complete copy, that doesn’t fix all the problems.
Curing the genetics doesn’t entirely fix the loss of muscle tissue that had resulted in those suffering from the conditions, especially if the cure was given to someone with an advanced form of the disorder.
The Living Mechanical Diode
Now, back to the topic of biorobotics. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame has combined two separate heart cell types, muscle cells and fibroblasts (fibrous connective tissue) in order to form what they call a “living diode”.
The cells were arranged in a rectangle, with the electrically excitable muscle cells on one end and the non-excitable muscle cells on the other, connected by fibroblasts. This formation causes electrical inputs to only travel one direction across the cells and can be used to modulate and control electrical signals, just like a mechanical diode.
Being able to control where the electrical signals flow allows the scientists to link the cellular circuitry into the bodily systems and have them act as living sensors and actuators of signals.
Such a system has the potential to be used to treat conditions like heart arrhythmia by correcting for electrical impulses. As for muscle degeneration, this muscle cell diode could help stimulate muscle responses and increase output from signals sent from the brain, helping to move limbs properly.
This may also have opportunities to work in junction with limb replacements and allow for more precision in movement with mechanical limbs.
Toward Full Cyborg
As is usually noted here on Bioscription, however, this is just the first step needed to make these technologies a reality. It allows an alternative to prior biocomputing methods using genetically modified cells and chemical inputs, which are overall slower than an electrically-based system like this biological diode.
But a first step is still a step and it opens the avenues of research wider for more scientists to simultaneously investigate and improve these technologies. And they will hopefully lead to direct cures and treatments in the near future for a variety of conditions.
Photo CCs: Thoracic anatomy from Wikimedia Commons