There are many things in your organs: a strong machine (in the case of your brain), detoxifiers (your liver and kidneys), respiratory devices (your lungs). But there is one thing they decidedly aren’t: translucent. That’s unless you’re Kevin Bacon in The Invisible Man, or if your organs end up in the laboratory of Ali Ertürk, director of the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine Institute at Helmholtz Munich.
Of course, you don’t have to make the brain translucent in order to see through it. An MRI can image the inside of a brain in detail and, by looking at blood flow, a functional MRI (fMRI) tests brain activity. So you will usually have to section the brain, destroying it as you hack into it to get at what’s happening on a cellular level.
The beauty of this new approach is that, while still peering deep into it, the researchers can keep a transparent organ fully intact, seeing right down to the cellular level. They can imagine, undisturbed in their natural arrangement, networks of teeny-tiny blood vessels. For instance, in the kidneys, they can see tufts of fine capillaries known as glomeruli structures, which help filter urine. Imaging an organ has been a painstaking and fairly destructive method up until this point. To reconstruct the structure, one technique is to cut super-thin slices of an organ, take an image of each slice, and stack those images. “But you can imagine that you’re disturbing the system when you cut,” says Jordan Miller, a bioengineer from Rice University who wasn’t involved in this new work. A greater understanding of the wildly complex structure of organs is what Miller and others are working for to reproduce the complexity in artificial organs. After all, you could get the same feature if you copy the structure.