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Messing with nature: this is the cutting edge of biohacking

Messing with nature: this is the cutting edge of biohacking


Top Shelf: we're all cyborgs now

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In some ways, we're all cyborgs, fusions of human and technology. We put on artificial skins to protect us, store our knowledge on hard disks, and replace our voices with text on a screen. Some of us are melded in more literal ways — I have magnetic and NFC implants in one hand, and there's a community of "biohackers" pushing the limits of DIY body modification with built-in earbuds and health monitors. But there's only so much you can do in a home lab or workshop. Instead of revisiting them for this week's Top Shelf, we looked for companies on the cutting edge of design and biotechnology, figuring out how to fix and improve our bodies.

Nina Tandon, CEO of EpiBone, believes we're in the middle of a paradigm shift in how we see ourselves. The early era of modern medicine, she says, dealt with bodies like machines, the sum of parts that could be swapped out if they broke. Surgeons might put in a synthetic replacement, cut bone out of another part of your body, or carve it out of a cadaver. But unlike a machine repair job, the replacement part might not fit perfectly, or your body could reject it altogether.

Instead of grafting bones from cadavers, we could regrow them

Tandon and her co-founder Sarindr Ick Bhumiratana believe the answer lies in treating the body like a renewable ecosystem: instead of finding replacement parts, you grow new ones. At their Harlem laboratory, I found a fridge full of incubating bones-in-progress — fragments of dead bone and live stem cells held in a plastic case. The bone scaffold, stripped of any cells, can be cut into exactly the right shape; over the course of about three weeks, the stem cells will grow around it, creating something that's theoretically just as good as the original.

EpiBone isn't the only research group working on growing bones, but the process has only been tested in animals so far. Tandon hopes to start human trials in 2016, and FDA approval would be years down the line. For now, though, I could hold little pieces of engineered bone in my hand, or I could pick up a human skull that shows off what the technology could do one day — gaps in its jaw have been filled with curved, perfect bone.

Personal medicine could be the future of much more than bone grafts. At Autodesk's experimental workshop in San Francisco — a playground of sewing machines, construction tools, and high-grade 3D printers — synthetic biologist Andrew Hessel is careful not to oversell his project. But simply put, he's trying to cure cancer. Hessel is working on Autodesk's Project Cyborg, a software platform that the company hopes can become as important for nanoscale research as AutoCAD is for drafting. Where modeling programs can send their data to 3D printers, Project Cyborg is working with DNA printing, where machines put down layer after layer of genetic base pairs instead of plastic filament. The human genome has over 3 million base pairs, but Hessel is focusing on something much smaller: a virus that contains only around 5,000.

The future of cancer treatments could be personalized viruses

Autodesk created a virus this year with the help of Stanford researcher Paul Jaschke, but given that the printer wasn't in its lab, I had to make do with a grapefruit-sized 3D-printed model (although Hessel says he's actually been asked if it was a real virus). That's sort of the point of Project Cyborg: a nanoscale project could be modeled from a computer in California, for example, and sent to a DNA printer anywhere in the world. It's all very abstract, except that bioengineered viruses could hold the key to wiping out cancer. In one very early trial at the Mayo Clinic, a modified measles virus successfully infected and killed a patient's tumors, though it failed to help the trial's other participant.

In 2009, before Project Goliath, Hessel founded an "open source drug company" called the Pink Army Cooperative. Its goal was a system where instead of waiting for a mass-produced cure for cancer, patients could send in samples and receive a printed virus tailored to their needs. Pink Army is currently in stasis, but Hessel is still confident in the theory behind it — no matter how long it might take to realize it.

Can you make an implanted monitoring device not creepy?

Autodesk and EpiBone's tools are meant to gently shift the body back into equilibrium. The high-concept Project Underskin, created by design studio New Deal, takes a different approach: if we're going to have technology in our bodies, how would we interact with it? The lobby of New Deal's San Francisco office is filled with products it's consulted on, including multiple Fitbits, the awkward but classy Lytro Light Field Camera, a sky-blue electric car charger, and any number of routers. Most of the rooms beyond it are secret: designers could be working on anything back there, including Google's modular Project Ara phone.

Project Underskin isn't real, nor is it likely to be developed any time soon. Theoretically, it's a pair of sensors that can be implanted in the front and back of your hand, glowing like the life gems in Logan's Run. New Deal founder Gadi Amit imagines it tracking your health, holding a virtual business card, and unlocking doors. The design is futuristic, but none of the applications are a stretch, considering that my own low-tech implant can already do two of them — albeit in crude prototype form. It's unique because Amit is trying to turn something most people see as awkward, useless, or scary into a tool for self-expression. The implants could form light patterns under the flesh of your hand, with abstract icons that could show you when you've transferred data or alert you if you become dehydrated.

Project Underskin raises all sorts of questions about privacy, interface design, and the way we experience technology. Unfortunately, we have no idea when we might be seriously asking these questions. We haven't even decided what to think about biohacking. Will its tools be carefully managed or widely available? Is it a way to keep our bodies running, or to enhance them in ways nature never intended? Will it work magic invisibly, or will we want to publicly display its results?

What kind of post-human will you be?