This Robot Chain-Smokes So We Don't Have To

Giphy/Wyss Institute

Harvard University scientists have built a machine that vapes and smokes cigarettes. It’s a bit like Futurama’s Bender, except it’s less megalomaniacal, and more bent on saving lives.

The machine, designed at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, allows scientists to directly assess the effect of smoking on a lung without human involvement. It includes a rubber block of living lung cells connected to a respirator designed to mimic how humans smoke. When the machine takes a drag from a barrel of 10 cigarettes, whole smoke travels toward the bronchiolar lung cells, which are stored in the hollow part of a chip. The timing of the machine’s puffing is based on data from actual human smokers.

“The power of the technology is that it allows us to directly analyze the effect of a stimulus, in this case smoke exposure, on lungs in what might be thought of as an in vitro human ‘pre-clinical study’,” said Donald Ingber, the Wyss Institute’s founding director, in a release. “This is hard to do in a standard human clinical study where one compares patients with a history of smoking versus those who do not smoke because all of the patients have different histories, backgrounds, and patterns of exposure to the stimulus.”

A microrespirator inhales and exhales small volumes of cigarette smoke.

Wyss Institute

The machine can also examine how e-cigarette vapors affect the lungs. In their work so far, the researchers have found that vaping has some effect on the way cilia — the microscopic hairs that are in the lung’s air passages — move. Previous research has demonstrated that cigarette smoke can damage cilia, which in turn causes problems like bronchitis.

In a new paper in the journal Cell, the researchers behind this smoking machine explain that they’ve been focusing on using the machine to study chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is difficult to study with humans. To do so, they lined some of the chips with healthy lung cells, and lined others with cells with COPD. So far they’ve found that COPD has specific “molecular signatures” and causes micropathologies to develop in the machine’s “cilia.” Eventually, they hope to use the machine to develop therapies for COPD and genetically target illness.

An unexpected bonus from this smoking machine is that it could eventually help replace animal studies that examine the same physiological effects. Dr. Norman Edelman of the American Lung Association told STAT that he sees this machine as a complementary model of study, not an alternative, but Ingber is hopeful. A machine that can help cure disease, and alleviate the need for animal testing? That’s a future we can get behind.

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