Graphene bioelectronic mesh: the future of heart monitoring

5th April 2024
Sheryl Miles

Engineers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a new tool for monitoring the heart: a bioelectronic mesh that can measure both the physical movements and electrical signals of heart cells as they grow.

This development is a significant advancement for cardiac health monitoring and drug testing because it allows a comprehensive view of heart health and the effects that drugs have on it, something that was previously much harder to achieve due to the complexities of cardiac tissue and the limitations of existing technology.

This technology, detailed in Nature Communications, is a step forward in the ability to study the heart's complexities by measuring both its mechanical movements and electrical activities in a lab-grown heart tissue.

Understanding the heart

The heart is a complex organ which doesn’t only pump blood, it also operates on electrical signals that control its pumping. These electrical signals initiate contractions, integrating the heart’s mechanical action with its electrical impulses in a synchronised dance.

However, cardiac disease disrupts this harmony, leading to significant health issues, and the heart's sensitivity to pharmaceutical compounds further complicates the development and testing of safe medications, necessitating comprehensive monitoring technologies.

Using graphene and cardiac microtissue

Monitoring the heart's health and its reaction to drugs is crucial because cardiac disease is a leading cause of death worldwide, and the heart can be very sensitive to medications. However, traditional methods of studying the heart either involve risky implants or can only measure one aspect of heart function at a time, either its mechanical movement or its electrical activity, but not both.

The cornerstone of this new bioelectronic mesh is the integration of two key elements: graphene and a lab-grown cardiac microtissue (CMT).

Graphene is a one atom thick, super-conductive material that can detect electrical activity and physical movement in the heart without disrupting its natural processes. Both electrically conductive and piezoresistive, it can detect electrical signals and changes in resistance caused by mechanical strains, such as those from heartbeats, and it can remain stable and conductive within a biological environment for a long time. This enables the monitoring of the heart tissue's development from its early stages in a way that was previously not possible.

CMT is lab-grown from human stem cells and it closely mimics the human heart's structure and function, allowing researchers to study the heart functions without needing a live subject. This allows for a more accurate model for studying cardiac responses in vitro.

Together, these components form a mesh that can monitor the heart's electrical and mechanical activities without interference, a feat not achievable with existing technologies.

The engineering challenge

Creating a device that could integrate with cardiac tissue without disrupting its natural functions posed significant engineering challenges. To counter this, the team developed a soft, porous mesh scaffold that mirrors human tissue's structural and mechanical properties. This scaffold houses the graphene sensors and stretches along with the growing heart tissue, enabling continuous, non-invasive monitoring throughout the tissue's growth and maturation. It is the first known time that such a comprehensive monitoring tool has been developed and it offers new opportunities for understanding heart health, developing treatments, and researching the effects of drugs on the heart.

The future of bioelectronic mesh

The bioelectronic mesh’s ability to measure both mechanical and electrical aspects of heart function simultaneously is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of cardiac diseases, the effects of testing pharmaceuticals, and the development of treatments. Moreover, the non-invasive nature and compatibility with living tissue make it a promising tool for long-term monitoring and research.

Looking ahead, the team hopes to refine this technology for use in actual living organisms, which could potentially change how cardiac diseases are understood and treated, making heart health monitoring more precise, less invasive, and more informative.

As technology evolves, our understanding of intricate organs improves, highlighting the important contribution technology makes in advancing human knowledge and diagnosis. By leveraging graphene's properties and the physiological relevance of CMT, engineers have provided a powerful tool for better understanding the enigmatic nature of one of the most complex organs, the human heart.

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