Are we on the brink of a medical revolution? Soon the quickest way to someone’s heart might be to simply grow it yourself at home. The implications of tissue engineer Nina Tandon’s approach to artificial organ building could change the world

From advanced prosthetic limbs to the first successful heart transplant in 1967, breathtaking advances in medicine have resulted from a century of viewing the body as a system of interchangeable parts. But this industrial metaphor can only take us so far in the information age. If tissue engineers like Nina Tandon have anything to do with it, in a few decades we’ll receive news that the first human has received a heart grown in the lab using his own DNA. This will be a triumph of the new school of thought: viewing our own cells as a form of technology with parallels to today’s information and communication networks.

“It’s almost like living cyborgs,” Tandon tells us. “Instead of cyborg – which implies there’s a distinction between the technology that’s within us and our own technology – I think we’re coming to an era when the technology itself might be made of living parts.”

Tandon is working tirelessly to bring this future into being, starting with developing clinical applications for tissue engineering as co-founder of EpiBone, a startup seeking to commercialise the world’s first living, personalised human bone grafts. She is also a senior TED Fellow, an electrical and biomedical engineer at Columbia University, and an adjunct professor at Cooper Union teaching a course on bioelectricity. Finally, she’s a collaborator at Brooklyn’s Genspace, where she teaches artists and architects how to incorporate biology into their work. Genspace opened in 2009 as the country’s first community-based biohacking laboratory.

Some scientists might balk at having to distribute their efforts between so many pursuits, and Tandon’s current work isn’t the most lucrative option for someone holding both an MBA and a PhD in biomedical engineering. But Tandon thrives as a varied careerist. Dividing her time has created synergies that advance all of her projects at once: for example, students become research interns, and Genspace turns out to be an ideal collaborator for EpiBone. “It becomes a fluid exchange where at least for me, it feels like I’ve got a singular mission with a couple of different arms,” she explains.

In some ways, the arrangement is a continuation of Tandon’s childhood, when she felt a “multiple personality about what I should do.” Although she excelled at puzzles and problem solving, she also was a regular in community theatre productions, wrote poetry and sewed her own “uncool and ugly” clothes at home. “When people say, ‘Are girls good at math and science?’, I say: ‘Yeah, they’re good at a lot of things’,” she explains. “Especially early on, it’s hard for them to know what to choose.”

She eventually opted for science, in part because her father said that given her talents, doing otherwise would be a “disservice to women”. Today, she feels her background as an engineer allows her to do more creative work than might have been possible if she had pursued the arts professionally.

Tandon’s childhood experiences also gave her an early chance to see the body as a form of technology. Her two sisters are both red-green colour deficient and her brother is night-blind with tunnel vision. “Just playing roadside bingo, things would pan out and you’d realise this person does not see the world as I do,” she says. ‘The stuff that builds our bodies is the stuff that helps us create what our experience of life is – that was very tangible for me as a kid.”

Still, she might not have gone into tissue engineering without a chance to observe human-built technology up close. After earning her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Tandon went to work as an application developer at a large telecommunications company. She began taking college classes in physiology out of “personal interest” and began to see connections between the fields. “I started seeing all these analogies between the software and hardware of communications and what we have in our bodies and I was like, okay, I’ve got to go to grad school,” she explains.

In her PhD work, she eventually specialised in electrical stimulation for cardiac tissue engineering. But growing functioning hearts outside the body is still in the realm of science fiction, owing to the wide variety and complex organization of the tissues involved. On the other hand, simple organs like bladders, skin and even tracheas have already been successfully grown and implanted in humans. Currently, bone tissue falls somewhere in the middle on the pathway from basic research to the operating room. So, when she decided to start a company, Tandon thought it made sense to focus on engineering bone tissue.

Tandon predicts that intellectual property developed at her startup, EpiBone, will be used in humans for the first time within the next 18 months, beginning with compassionate cases and moving from there into full clinical trials. EpiBone at this point remains focused on growing bone for use in facial reconstruction. This is where the old, interchangeable parts model of the body fails us, Tandon reasons. At the moment, if we need more bone, we have to remove it from somewhere else in the body, and secure it in place using foreign bodies like titanium screws. Why pursue such an invasive strategy when we can simply grow replacement tissue in the lab from our own stem cells? And why not make our screws out of living bone?

Eventually, we may indeed see entire long bones, lungs and hearts grown in the lab. But far sooner, we’ll see tissue engineering revolutionize the development of new drugs and therapies. Currently, Tandon says, the process of bringing a drug to market takes $1bn and 10 years. With years of animal testing before clinical trials in people, companies can get far into this process before adverse effects show up and drugs are scrapped. Money is wasted and a culture of conservatism takes hold.

What if, instead, we could use tissue engineering to see how drugs react in human tissues before actually testing them on living people? Soon, Tandon says, we will be able to connect different kinds of tissue – heart, lung, kidney and so on – in miniaturised simulacra of the human body that offer more reliable drug testing environments than the bodies of pigs or mice. The technology could also create artificial test subjects to develop treatments for genetic diseases for which the current pool of willing volunteers is simply too small. This near-future invention has already acquired a suitably sci-fi name: human on chip. Tandon grows animated as she lists her colleagues currently working on the technology, saying: “There’s really top talent and money going towards this. I think a lot of people realise that this could be really beneficial.”

Tandon predicts even more radical developments in store for a time, sooner than we realise, when her field of tissue engineering will merge with synthetic biology. While tissue engineers stimulate cells to grow in a certain way, synthetic biologists reprogram their genetic code. When these join forces, Tandon says, we’re likely to see such exotic innovations as biological batteries like those that exist in electric eels or tobacco plants that are able to produce energy. New cells will be combined into biological structures that don’t exist yet in nature, but that take advantage of biology’s unmatched engineering genius. “Mitochondria produce energy 10,000 times more efficiently than the sun, per weight,” Tandon explains, her excitement building. “It’s beyond anything we can engineer ourselves, but if we start using it as our technology, it’s going to be huge.”

More pragmatically, Tandon realises that science cannot make such strides without support from the public and the venture capital community. She’s frequently seen touting the potential benefits of tissue engineering at events thick with potential investors, such as TED and the Bloomberg Longevity Economy Conference in New York.

But she also extends her outreach efforts to the public at large through Genspace. Based in a dusty former industrial building in downtown Brooklyn, which has thus far escaped the ravages of gentrification through the intervention of an eccentric landlord who loves “renting to hippies”, Genspace embodies the original punk roots of DIY culture in the sense that it encourages everyone, regardless of technical skill, to jump right in and get their hands dirty.

Tandon’s first project at Genspace helped architecture students at Cooper Union incorporate bioprinting into their work, but the space also regularly offers classes to students “anywhere from age 12 to their grandparents”. At a night called ‘Pizza and PCR’ (short for polymerase chain reaction), Genspace members “just start amplifying a bunch of DNA and buy a couple of pizzas and some beer”, Tandon says. “It’s pretty low barrier to entry.” Being more aware of biology, Tandon reasons, will also help make people more aware their own health and how it’s affected by invisible forces such as environmental contamination.   Tandon may one day patent a breakthrough that revolutionises medical treatments through tissue engineering. But for now, through her public outreach and her unconventional, many-layered career, she’s already spreading the word that choosing science doesn’t mean giving up self-expression.

“It’s like being a crime detective,” she says. “It’s very creative. You’re trying to unravel mysteries and you’re trying to think beyond what you can see. And that’s creativity.”

Published in Protein Journal. Photography by Teddy Fitzhugh