Can A Lab-Made Jelly Fish Help Fix Your Heart?

By Amir Khan on July 22, 2012 7:14 PM EDT

Jellyfish
A lab-made jellyfish may be the unlikely first step towards fixing damaged hearts, according to a new study, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology on Sunday (Photo: Creative Commons)

A lab-made jellyfish may be the unlikely first step towards fixing damaged hearts, according to a new study, published in the journal Nature Biotechnology on Sunday. Researchers bioengineered a jellyfish that can swim out of silicon and muscle cells - a first step in creating working cells for patients with damaged hearts.

"A big goal of our study was to advance tissue engineering," Janna Nawroth, study coauthor and doctoral student in biology at Caltech, said in a statement. "[Our idea] was that we would make jellyfish functions-swimming and creating feeding currents-as our target and then build a structure based on that information."

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Dr. Kevin Kit Parker, another of the study's coauthors and a bioengineer at Harvard University, said he spent years searching for a good model of the human heart. One day, while at the aquarium, he was struck at how a jellyfish, which uses muscles to propel itself through water, is eerily similar to the way a human heart pumps blood.

"I started looking at marine organisms that pump to survive," he said. "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."

Researchers placed the jellyfish in a salty fluid that can conduct electricity and administered a current, which caused it to expand and contract, much like a heart cell pumps. Researchers hope this process can one day be used to create beating heart cells.

The next step is to create a jellyfish that can seek out food on its own and activate its muscles internally, much like a real jellyfish.

"We're reimagining how much we can do in terms of synthetic biology," John Dabiri, professor of aeronautics and bioengineering at Caltech, who helped construct the robot, said in a statement. "A lot of work these days is done to engineer molecules, but there is much less effort to engineer organisms. I think this is a good glimpse into the future of re-engineering entire organisms for the purposes of advancing biomedical technology. We may also be able to engineer applications where these biological systems give us the opportunity to do things more efficiently, with less energy usage."

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