A team at the University of Illinois combined flexible polymers and heart muscle cells generated from stem cells to create synthetic “micro-organisms” capable of swimming in the blood stream. The researchers hope to perfect their miniature bio-bots so that they can deliver drugs or target cancers.
They modeled their bio-bots on one-cell animals and sperm that swim using a tail or flagella. First they created a body structure and a tail out of the polymer and then seeded the heart cells at the junction of the two parts. As many stem cell researchers are finding out, cells generated from stem cells have a remarkable ability to self organize. The Illinois team found that at the junction of the body and the tail, the heart cells started to beat in unison causing the tail to beat, propelling the bio-bot through fluid.
ScienceDaily ran a story about the work and quoted the lead scientist, Taher Saif:
It’s the minimal amount of engineering — just a head and a wire. Then the cells come in, interact with the structure, and make it functional.
The long-term vision is simple. Could we make elementary structures and seed them with stem cells that would differentiate into smart structures to deliver drugs, perform minimally invasive surgery or target cancer?
The article has links to a fun video of the bio-bot swimming and an animation of how they are constructed.
Some of the most intriguing uses of stem cells come from the interface of stem cell science and bioengineering. CIRM convened a workshop of experts in the field from around the world in 2012. You can read the report from that workshop on Tissue Repair and Regeneration.