Modern robots can do a lot of things that would be too difficult or dangerous for a human, from inspecting wind turbines to cleaning up underwater oil spills. Although they’re more capable in many ways, robots are still just metal and wires. Even when designed to look like humans, their engineered bodies can’t adapt to changes in the environment.

Now, scientists say they may be a step closer to overcoming this challenge as well. Scientists at Harvard University have developed a cyborg-like tissue that can facilitate cell growth, while simultaneously measuring the ongoing activity and status of those cells.

The study, published recently in the journal Nature Materials, details the researchers’ attempts to embed a three-dimensional network of functional, biocompatible, nanoscale wires into engineered human tissues. By introducing this nanoscale “scaffolding” into the tissue, the scientists were able to create cyborg-like tissue capable of detecting electrical signals generated by cells deep within the tissue, and to measure changes in those signals facilitated by cardio- or neuro-stimulating drugs.

“In the body, the autonomic nervous system keeps track of pH, chemistry, oxygen, and other factors, and triggers responses as needed,” Daniel Kohane, a Harvard Medical School professor in the Department of Anesthesia at Children’s Hospital Boston, told the Harvard Gazette. “We need to be able to mimic the kind of intrinsic feedback loops the body has evolved in order to maintain fine control at the cellular and tissue level.”

Although previous research has allowed scientists to grow tissues on top of electronic frameworks, these attempts only resulted in 2D cultures, which limited usefulness. With the most recent advance, the resulting material was spongy and porous enough to be seeded with heart and nerve cells — and to allow those cells to grow in 3-D cultures.

As you might imagine, there are number of ways in which accurate recreations of human tissue could be of use to the scientific community. The Harvard team responsible for the cyborg tissue say pharmaceutical testing is likely to be a big one. We can only wonder if someday this advancement will be the first major step toward large-scale androids that can sense environmental changes just like humans.

Featured photo credit: kaibara87/Flickr