Tiny Cyborg Stingrays May Lead The Way To World's First Biogenetic Artificial Heart [Video]

Tiny cyborg stingrays composed of "a pinch of breast implant, a pinch of gold, and a pinch of rat" may help lead the way to the development of the world's first fully functional biogenetic artificial heart, according a report from Wired's Tim Moynihan.

The research on the cyborg stingrays is being led by Kit Parker, the Tarr Family Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard University, and Sung-Jin Park, a postdoctoral fellow on Parker's disease biophysics team at Harvard's John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS).

One of Parker's previous projects include helping his Engineering Problem Solving and Design class develop a brisket-smoking robot, Moynihan previously reported. It was basically a 300-pound, souped-up version of the Big Green Egg with "a refueling chute built into the side of it...a proportional-integral-derivative controller, a Raspberry Pi, and fans to regulate its own temperature, automatically producing an ideal slow-and-low burn."

Parker's focus, however, is on building a functioning four-chamber heart that can be used to diagnose diseases or even replace hearts in babies and children suffering from cardiac diseases or abnormalities.

"We're doing a crawl, walk, run approach to building the heart," Parker says.

"Replacing a heart, that is a long term goal. That's blue sky, way off in the future. But along the way we can replace parts of a baby's malformed heart with something tissue-engineered. It might be valves, it might be a ventricular chamber."
Designing the cyborg stingrays, as unrelated as it may seem, was actually a step in that direction.

Parker often looks to the ocean to find inspiration.

"In the ocean, most creatures with the exception of crustaceans, almost all their musculature exists to pump fluids," Parker told Wired. "Either to swim through water or pump it through their body."

The idea to build the cyborg stingrays arose from a trip Parker took to the New England Aquarium with his daughter. While at a petting tank in the aquarium, he noticed a stingray quickly change course with one simple flap of its fin to avoid his daughter.

"When I saw it happen, it hit me like a lightning strike," Parker said. "The musculature in that fin, in order to change direction, must have been like the musculature we see in the endocardial surface of the heart, the inside layer of the heart. If I could replicate or build this, then I might have a deeper understanding of why the heart is built the way it is."

Parker sees stingrays and jellyfish as, basically, muscular pumps, much like the human heart. In his view, all of these pumps share similar elements of design and function.

The bodies of the cyborg stingrays are composed primarily of polydimethylsiloxane, which is the same material used to make the external layer of many breast implants. A lightweight "skeleton" made of gold provides the stingray with the "recoil" necessary to move its fins. The muscular tissue of the stingray is grown from rat cells, Parker explains in a video you can watch below.

While much of the vision of the project was Parker's, he needed Park's applied skills to actually create the cyborg stingrays.

Park designed the 16-mm-long stingrays so that they would respond to pulses of blue light that direct the fins to flap, Christy Steele explains in an earlier article for the journal Science.

Parker acknowledges that the development of a fully functional biogenetic heart is a long way off, but the cyborg stingrays could be an important step in that direction. And, in the meantime, he and Park have given the world its first cyborg stingrays.

[Featured image by Matt Cardy/Getty Images]