Nina Tandon, CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, spoke at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on Oct. 21 about her work growing living human bones for skeletal reconstruction.
In her talk, Tandon, who specializes in bioelectrical and biomedical engineering, stressed the importance of thinking about the technology of circuits and machines while also thinking about the technology of the human body. She sees these systems as intimately related and noted that much can be learned through the examination of the body as a machine.
“Once you can feel DNA with your hands, the distance between science fact and science fiction begins to close,” Tandon said.
Indeed, EpiBone’s work consists essentially of manufacturing with living resources rather than conventional materials. More importantly, bone generation “is really just the tip of the iceberg of what we can do when we think of cells as living building blocks,” Tandon said.
Tandon pointed to numerous examples of other companies at this innovative intersection of engineering and biology. Some companies are in the process of developing ways to produce leather and meat without harm to animals, to grow plant lattices in order to create living walls and buildings, and to manufacture mushrooms that would eliminate the waste in coffins associated with the decomposition process.
All of these projects can be linked back to a central idea that Tandon put forth of a new vision of the human body as a renewable ecosystem. With these new technologies, Tandon and bioengineers like her are making it possible to envision a world where quasi-limitless living resources can be generated from mere cells. This has important implications for core issues including the environment and medicine.
With tissue engineering, personalized pharmaceutical testing that reflects human diversity could eliminate the need for long and sometimes uncertain medical trials as well as animal testing. Tissue engineering also opens the door for research and testing on different diseases and could prove to be a big step in curing major illnesses.
EpiBone itself has a medical mission, but the company is not limiting its scope to a single field. Just as it is investigating the intersection between organic material and machinery, EpiBone is devoted to exploring the juncture of science and art. Their artist-in-residence program has sponsored artists making buttons using bone and creating jewelry based on CT scans from EpiBone’s pig studies.
Additionally, Tandon’s presentation offered an example of female representation in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
“It’s important for us to have female speakers from STEM fields because we still need to work on having more women in STEM and to have more women in our generation exposed to and inspired by role models who have been successful in the sciences,” Asem Berkalieva PO ’18 said.
Just as possibilities for the role of EpiBone and of bioengineering seem endless, Tandon helped expand the horizons of the attendees of her talk by briniging attention to the natural sciences on Claremont McKenna College’s traditionally social science-oriented campus.