Webinar Review: Multicellular Engineered Living Systems (M-CELS): What’s in the Dish?

Our trainees review webinars in their given fields and share abstracts to help colleagues outside their discipline make an informed choice about watching them. As our program bridges diverse disciplines, these abstracts are beneficial for our own group in helping one another gain key knowledge in each other’s fields. We are happy to share these here for anyone else who may find them helpful.

Multicellular Engineered Living Systems (M-CELS): What’s in the Dish?

Roger Kamm, PhD and Insoo Hyun, PhD


HMS Center for Bioethics

Charles MarchiniAnalysis by Charles Marchini:

M-CELS are formed from multiple cell types which integrate to form a system of sensors, processors, and effectors. They are used to establish an understanding of cell-cell and cell-environment interactions and how they are controlled to give rise to behavior of complex cellular systems.

An example of an M-CELS is that made from endothelial cells suspended in a matrix. Over time, vascular networks are formed by the cells sending out projections towards each other. In about 5 days, perfusable vessels form which allow them to be used for studying blood-flow-related pathologies such as metastasis. The M-CELS can be used to build models of perfused nerve cells and blood brain barriers that mimic those of a real animal brain. Another example is an artificial neuromuscular junction, which can be built artificially to study ALS.

M-CELS like these require bioengineering ethics considerations, which is a combination of bioethics and engineering ethics. Bioethics is the ethics surrounding natural biological material such as DNA, animals, and humans. Engineering ethics includes the social consequences of new technologies and how they will be abused. Bioengineering ethics includes ethics surrounding the unnatural biological material such as M-CELS and organoids and how these technologies should be developed. When is an M-CELS considered living? When should their well-being have our moral consideration? These are questions that need to be answered using bioengineering ethics.

An example of a bioengineering ethics application is when induced pluripotent stem cells were used to create a human embryo in vivo. It was decided that the embryo should not be as accurate as possible to a real human embryo and should be terminated at day 4 in vivo to reduce the level of moral consideration given to it. It is important to create new biotechnologies that can result in higher quality of life based on new science, but those technologies need to be developed ethically which can slow down progress. How much progress we make and how careful we are in creating new biotechnologies needs to be weighted properly to minimize risk and maximum reward.

I think this talk was great because we need to take the time to consider whether what we are doing is ethical, which could become difficult when we are in desperate need of new biotechnologies. We need to slow down and not create more biological problems while solving the ones we already have. We need to be aware of when these biological systems become conscious or can feel pain and prepare for it before it happens.