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Biocomputing: Imitating the Real Thing to Improve Life

Nina Welding • DATE: January 27, 2017

Categories:  Press Release

Oscar Wilde said “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery …” There’s more to that quote, but he could have stopped at “Imitation is the sincerest form.” It is a way to replicate the real thing for a variety of reasons, including foundational research in bioelectrical and biomechanical interfaces for biocomputing.

That imitation — the engineering of cell based models that duplicate the way biological systems interact and process information — is exactly what researchers like Notre Dame’s Pinar Zorlutuna have been pursuing as a basis for bioengineering applications ranging from biorobotics, human-machine interfaces, and treatment for muscular degenerative disorders, arrhythmia, and limb loss.

An assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, Zorlutuna and the Notre Dame team have created a new type of diode, one that is made entirely of cardiac muscle cells and fibroblasts. Their paper titled “Muscle-Cell-Based ‘Living Diodes,’” which was published in the January 11 issue of Advanced BioSystems and subsequently featured on the Wiley online journal Advanced Science News, discusses how using muscle cells as the diode components is ideal for cell-based information processing.

Biocomputing is an emerging field that aims to use biological components for signal processing, but so far it has mostly focused on using genetically modified single-cells or chemical additives to create a computational logic gate. The drawbacks of these options include slower processing and undesired biological side effects. Muscle cells are ideal candidates for use in biocomputing because they are both electrically and mechanically responsive. Additionally, the natural pacing ability of cardiac muscle cells allowed Zorlutuna and her team to modulate the frequency of the electrical activity and pass along information, which was embedded in the electrical signals.

“We are currently working on cell-based logic gates that can function to achieve more complicated tasks,” says Zorlutuna. She believes muscle-based diodes will enable the development of simple and practical cell-based logic devices.

Zorlutuna, a Notre Dame faculty member since 2014, directs the Tissue Engineering Laboratory where she explores biomimetic environments in order to understand and control cell behavior. She studies cell-cell and cell-environment interactions through tissue engineering, genetic engineering, and micro- and nanotechnology and is a researcher in the Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine and in the Harper Cancer Research Institute.

The co-owner of two patents related to biomaterials and tissue engineering, she has received a number of awards, including the 2016 Rising Star Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society, the European Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Doctoral Award from the European Society of Biomaterials, and the Thesis of the Year Award from the Middle East Technical University.

Zorlutuna received her doctorate in biotechnology through a joint program of Middle East Technical University (Ankara, Turkey) and the Interdisciplinary Research Center in Biomedical Materials at Queen Mary University (London, England). She has served as an assistant professor in the mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering departments and core faculty of the Institute of Materials Science at the University of Connecticut. She has also served as a visiting scholar in the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University and research fellow at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

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