Artificial jellyfish could be the key to a new way of doing heart transplants

An artificial jellyfish, engineered with components that include rats’ hearts and silicone, may be a major stepping stone for a whole new approach to heart transplants. The potential break-through for medical science was reported a few days ago in the journal Nature Biotechnology by researchers at Harvard University and Caltech (California Institute of Technology).

Harvard professor Kevin Parker, observing a jellyfish at the New England Aquarium, was struck by how its movement through the water resembled the movement of a beating human heart in its contractions. He got together with two others who work in the relatively new field of bioengineering, John Dabiri and Janna Nawroth of Caltech, and they have created an artificial organism that looks and swims like a jellyfish but contains not even a single jellyfish cell.

What they did, says Dabiri, was to replace jellyfish muscle with muscle from a heart – in this a rat’s heart – and then replace the ‘jelly’ with a substance made of silicone rubber. They named their creation ‘Medusoid’ and grew it on a tiny round platform much like the shape of a jellyfish, with eight ‘arms’, using computer engineering to see what shape was most efficient.

When they put Medusoid in a tank and sent a mild electric current through the conductive fluid, their creation swam off with synchronised pulsations very like a live jellyfish. It only moved in a straight line, unlike the turns and adjustments made by the living organism, but the scientists say they’re working on developments in that regard.

Professor Parker explained that the research went beyond current biological engineering, which is mostly based on genetic cell manipulation. He and his teammates sought to understand all the factors involved in jellyfish propulsion, including muscle structure and fluid dynamics. With that understanding, they were able to implant a protein pattern on a silicone base and grow cells from heart muscles on top of that, with the protein pattern acting as a road map for their organisation.

The experiment has little to do with jellyfish, however, and everything to do with the potential applications of this new technology. Dabiri says it’s possible, within the next ten years, that heart valves and pacemakers could be built using cells from the recipient’s own body. This could greatly improve the odds of survival, as the devices would be less likely to be rejected, and possibly longer-lived.