​Army vet takes us closer to Blade Runner era by building cyborg stingray

This medical researcher was inspired by his daughter's attempts to pet a stingray at an aquarium, leading to an inter-disciplinary research study costing $1 million that eventually gave birth to the rat-cell infused, metallic-spined stingray.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
Karaghen Hudson and Michael Rosnach

It almost seems like just yesterday that the world was introduced to Roy Batty, one of the most memorable cyborgs on the silver screen, a synthetic human who not only has the immense courage, intellect, and abilities to free his fellow "replicants" from the yoke of tyranny but also exhibits a profound humanity by saving a Blade Runner, the very kind trying to eliminate his breed.

This current aquatic cyborg may not be as memorable as yet to the one enshrined by Rutger Hauer in Ridley Scott's adaptation of Philip K Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it certainly has electrified the world by its birth and the possibilities that it brings with it.

Kevin Kit Parker, a former US Army paratrooper who completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan, leads a research team at Harvard University's Disease Biophysics Group that produced the stingray cyborg. The half-animal, half-machine is 16mm long, weighs 10g and is about the size of a penny. It has a neutrally charged gold skeleton wrapped with a thin layer of latex polymer, which contains an infusion of 200,000 light-sensitive rat muscle cells called cardiomyocytes. Parker spearheaded a write-up about the group's invention in Science Magazine recently.

Instead of skittering about looking for cheese as you would imagine a being that is guided by the heart of a rat would, this ray is controlled by a blinking, blue flashlight in a petri-dish filled with a sugar-salt liquid solution. Each pulse signals its photovoltaic rat cells to contract, and when the tissue relaxes, the gold skeleton recoils, propelling it upward and forward much like a real stingray would move.

Parker, whose research has focused on plumbing the infinite mysteries of the human heart, as a cardiac biologist initiated the ray project as a possible path toward building an artificial human heart. In order to do so, he approached postdoctoral researcher Sung-Jin Park -- a mechanical engineer -- to help him cobble together the stingray, and Park was more than a little stupefied: "I sat down with him," Parker told Jon Hamilton at NPR, "and I said, 'Sung-Jin, we're going to take a rat apart; we're going to rebuild it as a stingray; and then we're going to use a light to guide it.' And the look on his face was both sorrow and horror."

Next time you get irritated by the antics of your children be forewarned -- you may be cutting yourself off from career-making discoveries. Or, at least that's certainly what Parker's experience has been. The whole stingray project wouldn't have been born if he hadn't taken his daughter to the New England Aquarium where she "was trying to pet a stingray and she put her hand in the water and the stingray quickly moved away from her hand in a very elegant way," Parker told Gizmodo. "It struck me like a thunderbolt that I could build that system in the musculature, and that it would look very much like the [muscular] layer of the heart."

According to Gizmodo, getting a leg-up from her didn't stop there. "When my daughter was little, I used to point a laser pointer at the ground and she would try to stomp on it," he said. "We would go for a walk down the street and I could lead her along the sidewalk safely by just pointing a laser pointer at the ground. It occurred to me that we could use optogenetics to mimic this with the tissue engineered stingray," he told the publication.

Parker's project has excited scientists of all kinds, especially those in robotics, like John Long, a professor of biology and cognitive science who is head of Vassar College's Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory. "By putting in the light control they have a way of controlling the cell without a nervous system," said Long to the Associated Press. "We used to control puppets with strings. Now we can do it with light," he added.

Much like in Blade Runner, an invention such as this is probably getting those who have to think about conflict on a regular basis more excited than most. "I've spent time getting shot at and seen people getting shot. If I could build a cyborg so my buddy doesn't have to crawl into that ditch to look for an IED, I'd do that in a heartbeat," said Parker.

Hopefully, by then, it would have the intelligence and compassion of one Roy Batty.

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