The most complex "megastructures" that we know of are neither bridges nor dams nor tunnels: the mystery of how to build an organ
There are many things that we do not know. Sometimes it is because they are distant things, lost in the confines of the universe or at the bottom of the deepest graves; other times because they are minuscule details that live in quantum worlds where the laws that we know are dissolved in a sea of paradoxes. Then there are those questions that we have at our fingertips, but which remain hidden because we lack technology to study them correctly.
The question of "How does a small group of cells organize to become a lung, a brain, or a liver?" is one of those questions. Although this is a critical period of development, we did not have any sensor small, flexible and precise enough to analyze that small engineering feat without causing damage to the cells that star it. At least, as published in NanoLetters, we did not have them until now.
A group of researchers from Harvard University (SEAS) have developed a new approach by creating organoids (simplified organs used in biomedical research as research models) fully integrated with nanometric sensors. The result gives us an opportunity to examine the early stages of organ development in a radically new way.
It's something that Jia Liu, assistant professor of bioengineering at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and lead author of the study, has been ruminating since high school when he was truly impressed to study that a handful of two-dimensional structures were capable of form complex three-dimensional structures in a very short time.
With his team, Jia Liu began to think that “if they could develop a nanoelectronic device that was so flexible, elastic and soft that they could grow together with developing tissue naturally, integrated sensors could measure all the activity of this process of developing".
The result has been a mesh of straight lines with a structure similar to that used in portable electronics, on which the team placed a two-dimensional sheet of stem cells. Once biology and electronics became intertwined, one just had to wait for the development process to take its course to get "tissues with a fully distributed and integrated nanoscale device in all its 3D volume."
As a result, the researchers were able to monitor and study the electrophysiological activity of the organs for 90 days, allowing a better understanding of the dynamics by which "individual cells begin to interact and synchronize throughout the development process."
This is a really interesting investigation and not only because it opens the doors to understand how the development of organs as critical as the heart or the pancreas work. Also because organoids have a central role in the search for pharmacological treatments and if this technique is consolidated, we will be able to know how drugs act on organs with a truly incredible level of precision.
Image | Robina Weermeijer