05/18/2018

Mending Human Hearts, With Help From Graphene

5:48 minutes

Back in 2010, two Russian scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of a new, carbon-based material called graphene. At the time, people called it a “wonder material” because of how light and thin it is, yet it’s 200 times stronger than steel. It conducts electricity better than copper, and people said it would revolutionize the tech industry by replacing lithium ion batteries.

Eight years later, the jury is still out on whether graphene will be part of every smartphone and gadget of the future, but scientists are finding graphene to be an extremely powerful tool in the biomedical laboratory. In a study out this week in the journal Science Advances, scientists used graphene’s electrical properties to stimulate lab grown heart cells that could be used in patients after they’ve had a heart attack.

microscope video of heart cells bunching up and lighting up
Optical stimulation of heart muscle cells via graphene-based bio-interfaces. Credit: Nanotools Bioscience

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Alex Savchenko, Research Scientist at the University of California San Diego, joins Ira to discuss the future of graphene, the wonder material, in the world of biomedicine.


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Segment Guests

Alex Savchenko

Alex Savchenko is a research scientist at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, part of the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Back in 2010, two scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of a new carbon-based material called graphene. And at the time, people called it the wonder material because of how light and thin it is, yet it’s 200 times stronger than steel. It conducts electricity better than copper. And people said it would revolutionize the tech industry by replacing lithium-ion batteries.

Well, here we are eight years later. The jury is still out on whether graphene will be part of every smartphone and gadget of the future. But scientists are finding graphene to be an extremely powerful tool in the biomedical laboratory.

For example, in a study out this week, scientists have figured out a way to use graphene’s electrical properties to stimulate heart cells by just shining a light on them, cells that could be used in patients after they’ve had a heart attack. Joining me now to talk about how they did this is Alex Savtchenko, research scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Dr. Savtchenko, Welcome to Science Friday.

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. So why does shining a light on these heart cells make them beat faster?

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: So, yeah, essentially the cardiomyocytes for research usually are used in a state where they are beating at their leisure, like lazy cells. And graphene allows us to use solar cell type application, where you shine the light, and suddenly you can control how fast the cells beat.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a pretty neat trick. Why would you want to make these heart cells beat faster?

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: So there are several answers to that. One is you make them exercise. Second, for drug discovery applications, which is the most essential if you want to make better drugs for humans. [INAUDIBLE] where you test cardiomyocytes, not when they are in their relaxed state, but for example, when you model tachycardia. And using graphene light stimulation, it’s very easy to model exactly how do you want the irregular heartbeat.

IRA FLATOW: Can you use these cells and put them back into a patient with heart problems, and these cells, now that they’re beating stronger help the heart out a little bit?

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: Exactly. That’s the ultimate goal. So we at Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine are trying hard to do just that. The problem today is we now know how to make these cells from patient-specific cells, like your [INAUDIBLE] for our hearts. But they’re in embryonic state. So our technology allows them to grow into more mature states, so then we can put them into a heart of an adult person.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, because the embryonic cells are just too small like baby cells, and they can’t work that well?

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: Yes, too small, less active. They are pumping blood less actively. So for example, a newborn baby can not run 100 yards, just because heart will not do it.

IRA FLATOW: You think?

ALEX SAVTCHENKO [INAUDIBLE].

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Can you use graphene then to study when the heart is stressed out, like during a heart attack? Is there any way you can use graphene that way?

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: That’s exactly what we are doing. That’s an enabling application, which allows us to actually take a patient-specific human-derived stem cell cardiomyocytes. And actually make them not only just contract at the rest state, let me put it this way, but modulate the heart attack, the tachycardia, some other conditions. And that’s a goal. That’s exactly what we do.

IRA FLATOW: Now, you’re a physicist studying graphene. Are you a little bit surprised at how long it has taken graphene to pan out into a useful device or [INAUDIBLE]?

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: Well, the answer to that is a lot of labs in the world are racing with a huge speed, trying to make graphene, to come exactly as you mentioned earlier, into our cell phones, changing the battery situation from battery actually to a capacitor charge. However, in biology, it’s very few people who would have physical background and do biological applications. So that’s why we are kind of unique there.

IRA FLATOW: And why is it that you switched from physicist to biomedicine? Did you realize the potential possibilities of graphene? Or you find this interesting, this whole field?

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: Yeah. No, I was very interested from the very beginning in the whole field. And it appears that you can quantify certain processes in our body. And that immediately leads to much better quality of life for patients. And I thought using physical background allows me, exactly like the graphene case, to merge two things– biology, which traditionally would be non-physicists, and physical methods of using it.

IRA FLATOW: That’s great. Well, we’ll follow your research, and we wish you the best of luck.

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: How long do you think you’ll be working on this? A few more years, I’m sure.

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: Absolutely. So this is a hugely emergent area. Graphene, due to conductive properties, is just good for cells by itself. And in addition, we are using light to modulate the behavior.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Alex Savtchenko, research scientist at UC, San Diego. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

ALEX SAVTCHENKO: Thank you so much.

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