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Electronic Nanotech Sensors Added to Bioengineered Tissue

Daniel Kohane (Boston Children's Hospital)

Daniel Kohane (Boston Children’s Hospital)

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Boston Children’s Hospital developed a way to embed nanoscale electronic sensors in engineered tissues. The team of medical researchers and engineers published their findings yesterday online in the journal Nature Materials (paid subscription required).

The study addressed the need to better monitor bioengineered tissues as well as stimulate and measure cellular reactions after their implanting. Senior co-author Daniel Kohane of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School (pictured right)  says, “We need to be able to mimic the kind of intrinsic feedback loops the body has evolved in order to maintain fine control at the cellular and tissue level.”

The researchers built networks of silicon wires, some 80 nanometers in diameter — 1 nanometer equals 1 billionth of a meter — into formations resembling a fine mesh, shaped like flat planes or in a puffy configuration like cotton-candy. The team built these networks to allow cells to seed and grow on the nanowires.

On this structure, the researchers added heart and nerve cells and biocompatible coatings, which created engineered tissue without affecting the cells’ viability or activity. From within these lab-created tissues, the team detected electrical signals generated by cells, and measured changes in those signals in response to cardio- or neurostimulating drugs.

The researchers then developed bioengineered blood vessels using these embedded networks and were able to measure pH changes both inside and outside the vessels. This capability, notes senior co-author Charles Lieber of Harvard Medical School, expands the ability to monitor and interact with living tissue. “We can use electrodes to measure activity in cells or tissue, but that damages them,” says Lieber. “With this technology, for the first time, we can work at the same scale as the unit of biological system without interrupting it.”

Kohane adds that this approach to tissue engineering is different from other current methods. “Most of the time,” says Kohane, “your goal is to create scaffolds on which to grow tissues and then have those scaffolds degrade and dissolve away. Here, the scaffold stays, and actually plays an active role.”

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