Scientists have created an artificial jellyfish which they hope could change the face of pacemakers forever.
They say the creature, which is made from silicone and heart tissue from rats, could be used to help create a new generation of ‘biological’ pacemakers which do not need electrical signals.
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology created the artificial jellyfish – called a medusoid – after studying the fast muscle contractions which propel the animals through the water.
They put it in a tank of ocean-like salt water fitted with an electric current and managed to ‘shock’ it into synchronised movements like a real jellyfish.
The scientists said that, with more work, it could be engineered to pulsate by itself, as human hearts do.
They added that it could be used to create pacemakers that do not need electrical signals or even to engineer new organs after heart failure.
Co-author Kevin Kit Parker, Professor of Bioengineering and Applied Physics at Harvard, said he began the research because he thought scientists may have failed to understand how muscle pumping works.
He said: ‘I started looking at marine organisms that pump to survive.
‘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 medusoid, which has eight spindly arms, was built out of a jelly-like material, with the pattern of protein molecules in a real jellyfish ‘printed’ on top of it. The rat tissue, which could be stimulated by an electric current even after removal from the hearts, was then incorporated.
The human heart
The researchers said this was a ‘glimpse into the future of re-engineering whole organisms’ to advance medical technology.
Lead author Janna Nawroth, a biology PhD student at Caltech said of the study – published in Nature Biotechnology: ‘A big goal of our study was to advance tissue engineering.
‘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.’
Professor John Dabiri, a member of the Caltech team, said: ‘We are reimagining how much we can do in terms of synthetic biology.
‘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.’
Heart disease is one of the biggest killers in Britain, with more than 191,000 people dying from heart and circulatory disease in 2008.
Pacemakers, which generally last between six and ten years, send electrical signals through the heart to stimulate it to contract.
This produces a heartbeat and keeps blood pumping around the body.
Bio-engineering – taking inspiration from the natural world to make tools including medical devices and infrastructure – is a booming field of science.
Last year, scientists at the University of Colorado found the blood of pythons – who eat as little as once a year and almost double in size – strengthened heart function when injected in mice.
Jellyfish are believed to be the oldest multi-organ animals in the world, possibly existing on Earth for the past 500million years.
Their lifespan is anything from hours to a few months.