In her new book Supercells, Tandon talks about how stem cells are the future of medicine and beyond. Cowritten with Mitch Joaquim of innovative architectural firm Terreform, the book explores how stem cells and biotech are slowly making their way into everything we produce — from textiles to video games. We sat down to talk about how Tandon got into the business of making body parts and the future of creating them in a lab. Check out the highlights of our chat.
How did you get into building hearts?
"I’m an electrical engineer by training. I was really interested in technologies that were interactive, and I ended up working in telecom after college. At night, I was taking classes at a community college, and I ended up getting way more into this physiology class than any normal person. I remember being in class and seeing all these parallels. I was this weirdo kid at the community college that was like, ‘Oh my gosh, DNA is like a hard drive! The cables in the telephone wires at work are just like nerves!’ And, it really sparked my imagination towards going to grad school to pursue that idea further.
"When I first started doing my studies at MIT, that’s when I met my PhD mentor Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, who is just such a rockstar in the field of regenerative medicine. And, she took me on as a grad student. Under her supervision, I started exploring the connection between electrical signals and heart development, specifically how to use electrical signals to get heart tissue to grow better in the lab. This was a really new idea 10 years ago. I started thinking, ‘What about frequencies? What about amplitudes and waveforms?’ and things like that. ‘What are the electrodes made out of?’ and really digging deep into the electronics component of cardiac-tissue engineering."
"The goal of tissue engineering in general is to generate spare parts for the human body. You can think at some point in the future there will be a one-stop body shop for human organs.
"As an example, world wide there are over two million procedures that involve cutting the bone out of one part of the body and putting it in another. That’s massive, and that’s because the only way to get human bone is to get it out of a person. This is a perfect opportunity for a tissue engineering approach. We can grow human bone without needing a human body to incubate it."
You have a book coming out this week, called Supercells. How does it relate to the work you’ve done in tissue engineering?
"One of the things I realized when I first went to TED is that there were other TED fellows that were either using cells to grow textiles or cells to grow architecture. The idea of using cells as a technological partner was one that when I was first open to this as a paradigm beyond my own work— I was blown away by this.
"So, when the TED people approached me about doing a book, I suggested it become a book of case studies of cells as technological partners in these disparate fields. There’s a wide array of case studies including art, architecture — and even a chapter on biotic games which use living organisms as part of video games. Then, there’s a chapter on Modern Meadow using cells [to create] meat and leather. It became an exciting way to connect with people who don’t realize they’re part of the same movement."
So, in some ways the work being done with cells isn’t just medical, it’s a whole new form of manufacturing.
"The first revolution was all about figuring out mechanics. How do you make a production line? How do you think about interchangeable parts. And, the second revolution is all about moving between different parts of the world to facilitate a distributed manufacturing process. I think this is a new paradigm coming online like the third revolution. Up until now, even though we have a lot of distributed manufacturing and we do have 3-D printing...we’re still limited by the physical processes of chemistry and physics. So, I think we need new standards for what we need to accomplish in manufacturing. And, I think biology and nature are natural partners in that quest."
What’s the most exciting part of your work?
"We get a lot of messaging from the powers that be that we’re not excelling in science anymore, when actually this country is at the epicenter of a really interesting movement, like the DIY bio movement. I get really excited about what could be an interesting new chapter in science that’s coming online right now."
What’s your secret weapon for working on all these different projects?
"Running and yoga. Running is about getting bad energy out, and yoga is about getting good energy in. When I was studying for my GREs in college, I started experiencing heart racing when I was anxious. I thought, if you’re going to be racing, (you should) be running. Let me give this energy an outlet."