Science Fiction? NO!
It's here now! Two engineers at the University of California at Befkeley have created
a bionic chip that combines a living human cell in an electronic circuit.
Boris Rubinsky and Yong Huang designed the chip to improve gene therapy and other medical processes by
injecting drugs, DNA, and other things into cells with a precision previously unattainable.
Boris Rubisnky is a professor of mechanical engineering at Berkeley. Yong Huang is a graduate student
there. Rubinsky said they were originally reluctant to call their invention "bionic
" because they were afraid it would make people think of Frankensteinian monsters. However, they
couldn't find another word that described it so well.
"I think (bionic) is a name that describes what this is," said Rubinsky.
"On the one hand, it has components that are truly electrical, as you would have
in any computer. On the other hand, you have a component that is truly biological, as you would have in
any cell culture. They, however, interact ... (and) together, they become something more."
Scientists have been growing neurons over electronic arrays, like vines on a trellis, for some time.
Rubinsky's chips, however, are completely new in that they interact and the human and electronic components
Rubinsky and Huang wanted to make the inexact process of gene splicing more consistent. Although gene
therapy researchers use a variety of ways to introduce foreign genes into the body, the processes are
unreliable. The genes are only occasionally accepted by the cells.
"Currently, genetic engineering is a trial-and-error procedure. You zap them
with a hammer," said Rubinsky, "and you hope they will be genetically
engineered. We essentially felt the need, coming from an engineering background, to develop a device that
would control the procedure."
The engineers stimulate the human part of the chips with electricity. This opens the membrane's pores,
which are the doors to the interior of the cell. This process, called "
electroporation" has been used in gene therapy studies, but has never before been used on single cells.
Rubinsky and Huang discovered that the cell acts like a switch, passing or blocking electricity at specific
voltages. By using this switching behavior, they built a cell into an electronic chip, using the cell as
a silicon diode.
The cell was created from a human prostate cancer culture. It is kept alive by supplying it with oxygen,
sugar, and other nutrients that are needed for a cell to survive.
The first use of the bionic chip is to test cells' response to foreign genes and drugs. They connect the
chip to a computer and control the opening and closing of the pores (doors) with a touch of a key. With
this setup the researchers can either introduce things into the cells or extract substances like cellular
proteins from them.
In the future, Rubinsky says, doctors may introduce cells like these into the human body to administer
medication to individually targeted groups of cells, or to correct genetic abberations. An example of
group targeting cells would be supplying a poison directly to cancerous cells, without harming the good cells.
An example of correcting genetic errors would be correcting the defective gene that causes multiple
Eventually, this new bionic technology could be used in computers and other electronic devices. Taking
this application to its obvious conclusion, this new bionics could eventually be used to develop an artificial
life form commonly called an "android".
Perhaps someone like Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation may truly be possible!