Understanding Cyborg Jellyfish

While I was on vacation I missed a fascinating story about how scientists at Harvard University and Caltech have created an artificial jellyfish – termed a medusoid – using rat heart cells on a silicone matrix in order to demonstrate that it is possible to reverse-engineer a muscular pump, as described in this informative report on CBC News.

This isn’t the first time scientists have created artificial tissue that can mimic the rythmic pumping of the heart, we noted in 2011 that Professor Harald Ott and Dr. Doris Taylor at the University of Minnesota engineered a a rat heart that was able to sustain its own contractions and respond to physiological stimuli, but the strategy used to develop the synthetic jellyfish may help to accelerate the development of the artificial heart to the point where it can  be evaluated by transplantation into live animals. The synthetic jellyfish may also prove very useful in screening for the effects of drugs or other chemicals on the heart prior to live animal studies, as it can more accurately reflect heart physiology than current in vitro models, while at the same time being a lot simpler (and hence easier and cheaper to produce and maintain) than a complete artificial heart.

In an article entitles “March of the cyborgs” on the Understanding Animal Research News blog, Martin Turner puts this latest development into the context of other recent advances in regenerative medicine and notes that:

Whole organs pose greater challenges, but by combining living matter with other materials using techniques gained from projects such as the cyborg jellyfish, scientists might be able to bypass many of the obstacles posed by a purely biological system.

The cyborg jellyfish might seem fanciful and frivolous, but it’s small, incremental advances that lead to great innovations. With that in mind, the jellyfish’s creators are attempting their next, more complex creature. But we might have to wait another four years to find out what it will be.

It’s an excellent point, while the field of regenerative medicine is progressing very rapidly – progress which is needless to say dependent to a large extent on animal research – there is a danger that expectations may run too far ahead of what is technically possible.  We are beginning to see tissue engineering enter the clinic, but it will be years, if not decades, before it becomes a standard part of medicine. Investing in science is all about the long haul; if we wish to reap the rewards 10 or 20 years from now, we must be willing to support the basic and applied research that is being done in labs today.

Paul Browne