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News Link • Health and Physical Fitness

Bionic Muscles Toughen Up

• Katherine Bourzac via
 The tissues of the heart are mechanically tough and electrically conductive, and they keep a strong, rhythmic beat—properties that are tough to mimic in the lab. But a new hybrid material that combines cell-friendly gel, strong, conductive carbon nanotubes, and living cardiac cells mimics natural heart tissue more successfully than previous attempts. Eventually the new material could be useful in both medical and robotic applications.

The bionic tissues, made by Ali Khademhosseini, a professor at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, could serve as muscles for biological machines—moving, programmable living tissues that take synthetic biology beyond single cells. A lot of the things that natural tissues and biological cells can do, such as sense and respond to their environment, are hard for engineers to achieve with the synthetic materials used in conventional robotics. Researchers hope that building machines from biological materials like heart tissue will expand what’s possible. The new tissues can swim untethered in water, swing back and forth, and perform other moves programmed by controlling their shape and thickness.

If these materials turn out to be safe for use in the human body, they might also be used to patch tissue damaged by heart attacks. Researchers engineering heart tissues in the lab often use polymers and gels to provide cardiac cells with an environment in which they will grow and behave as they do in the body. The resulting materials have two critical flaws, says Khademhosseini. They don’t match the electrical conductivity of heart tissue, nor are they as mechanically strong.

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