Author Archives: koby michaels

Cell-stretching robots and the importance of revisiting old ideas with new technology

People are great at coming up with terrible ideas, even when those people are scientists. Bad ideas can be harmless, like Lamarck’s theory of inheritance, or more sinister, like eugenics, an idea which inspired forced sterilizations and worse. The beauty of science lies in how these bad ideas are replaced by newer and better ideas. These bad ideas are old ideas like all old ideas, right?

Wrong. The history of science is overflowing with terrible ideas but a few gems remain hidden among the asininity.

A new robot, designed by Dr. Dana Damian at the University of Sheffield is based on one of these gems. The robot connects to a pig’s esophagus with two rings. Soft, wrinkled skin protects the robot’s position sensors and motors that slowly stretch the robot and the tissue it’s attached to. The robot was built with diseases like short bowel disease or esophageal atresia in mind. The robot elongated a pig’s esophagus by 77% over nine days and this elongation was almost entirely due cell division, not cells being stretched. By stretching the pig’s tissue, the robot encouraged cells to divide and build a longer esophagus.

Dr. David Mooney, a professor of Bioengineering at Harvard University, explained the ideas behind Dr. Damian’s robot are not new.

“We have long appreciated physical forces regulate biology,” he said in the Science Friday interview. He cites prescribing weight lifting regimen to osteoporosis patients as lifting weights has been shown to increase bone density and strength, helping combat the disease.

Robots like Dr. Damian’s could be implanted into newborns to treat physical ailments like atresia but the possibilities these robots raise are more far more exciting and wide reaching.

Robots applying steady and long-lasting mechanical stress could be used to stimulate stem cells to divide and specialize. This would simplify processes required to work with stem cells today which are expensive and potentially dangerous. A robot that could mechanically stimulate new stem cells for use in healing and recovering, while years away from clinical use, is now has proof of concept.

What other ideas has science relegated to dusty book shelves that could prove to be revolutionary today?

Using leeches and maggots in medicine are the best known examples of science breathing new life into old ideas. Scientists need to look back at old ideas, theories, and research with the benefits of modern knowledge and technology. Retrospective research could lead to new (but old) ideas of how our world works, avenues of research, or treatments for disease.

Oliver Sack’s, the late neurologist and writer, ended his essay Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science by exploring the nature of ideas in science. “Ideas, like loving creatures, may arise and flourish, going in all directions, or abort and become extinct, in completely unpredictable ways,” he wrote. “[This] brings home a sense that science is not an ineluctable process but contingent in the extreme.”

– Koby Michaels