Abu Dhabi: Imagine a world where energy is converted 10,000 times more efficiently than the sun, where batteries are alive and broken bridges rebuild themselves," said Nina Tandon, CEO andco-founder of EpiBone, the world’s first company growing living human bones for skeletal reconstruction.
“This is a world that we are already living in. "Every cell in your body has a voltage across it, and mitochondria convert energy 10,000 times more efficiently than the sun. Bone cells break down and repair themselves all the time,” Tandon, the co-author of Super Cells: Building with Biology, which explores the new frontiers of biotech, told the majlis of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
With EpiBone, Tandon is pioneering research into how we can manipulate these incredible properties of our cells.
"We take fat tissue, extract stem cells out of them, then engineer living tissues from your own cells to create bone grafts" she explains. "It takes about three weeks as of now, and we can grow them at just about any size or shape that we want. Because it's made from the patient's own cells there's no chance of rejection."
A TED Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Cooper union, Tandon said in the last century, we started to view the body as an assemblage, a sum of parts that can be replaced with donor organs, for example. But now we've started drilling down deeper. Rather than viewing the body as asset or parts we're viewing it as a collection of cells, as a vast renewable resource.
“This new way of thinking doesn't just belong to the field of medicine. It's stimulated a rich cultural movement, as bio-artists experiment with the creative potential contained at the cellular level,” she said.
Tandon pointed to British fashion designer Suzanne Lee who grows textiles from bacteria, and Stanford researcher Ingmar Riedel-Kruse who films the action of cellular organisms and incorporates them into video games. On a larger scale she quoted the architect and co-Founder of Terreform ONE, Mitchell Joachim who asks, "Why are we building homes, when we should be growing them?" "Isn't it exciting," she said, "to think that if the first industrial revolution was about machines, the second was about data, that the third revolution could be about life itself."
Tandon's primary work was with neonatal heart cells, which can be made to link up with each other and beat independently once exposed to pulses of electricity, as with a pacemaker. "
We cultivate cells in advanced culture systems called bioreactors, which are like petri dishes outfitted with electrodes and pumps, then expose them to a short burst of electricity between one and ten V/cm -- about three hertz for rat cells and one for human," she says. "Eventually they start beating together by themselves."
Tandon, 39, began her career as an electrical engineer working in telecommunications. But, while taking an evening class in physiology at a community college in New Jersey, she started to see parallels between electrical engineering and the body. "I looked at DNA and thought:
'hard drive'. I found the equations governing the transmission of signals along nerves were the same ones developed for transatlantic cables. I applied to grad school and made a shift into biology. I did electrical engineering at MIT, then bioelectrical at MIT, then biomedical at Columbia."
Tandon said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted EpiBone’s Investigational New Drug (IND) clearance to proceed with clinical trials of its lead bone product as a potential treatment for ramus continuity defects in the mandible. The ramus is a key component of the jaw bone which attaches to the muscles associated with chewing.