Bioprinting, Babies and Nanotech Chat at Open City
Our Rewiring The Body event, originally programmed for Cork Film Festival, returned in a rebooted, expanded programme for Open City Docs Fest last week. The event explored ‘the intersection of technology and the flesh’ with a series of short films covering everything from plastic surgery to 3D printed prothetic limbs, from cyborgs to synthetic organs and from the imagined social hierarchy of future body augmentation to life-saving breakthroughs right now. The films ranged from documentary to animation, experimental and sci-fi work.
We also welcomed two excellent speakers to the event. Up first, artist and designer Agatha Haines asked us the question ‘Are Two Heads Better Than One?’, looking at the idea of forced evolution (or human body design). If we can see the human body as a system of interchangeable parts, what would stop us “searching for better components than we have now”?
Using the Frankenstein story as a starting point Agi soon showed the modern Dr Frankenstein not as a madman in a dark cellar, but as a rather mild looking man in a lab coat. Rather than a monster, we see a layer of chicken heart cells beating inside a petri dish. This wasn’t dissected from an intact heart, Agi explains. It wasn’t even grown in a lab. Instead it was ‘printed’ by a bioprinter. This can can print tissues and organs layer by layer (much like a ‘normal 3D printer) forming a 3d structure by replacing ink with cells. Agi asked us to think of the impact a technology like this could have on life expectancies and organ transplant.
While body augmentation can seem like the territory of sci-fi, Agi listed some of the everyday augmentations we accept as beneficial or necessary – glasses, dental braces, walking sticks. How much further does Neil harbisson, the self-proclaimed cyborg, go by wearing an ‘eyeborg’ – an electronic eye that renders colour into sound allows him to look at colours and hear the shades as frequencies?
The invention came from his frustration at his complete colourblindness. Now he has an extraordinary, unique relationship to colour. Agi listed many other prominent examples of body augmentation – some born of disability, some of curiosity. She also referenced head and foot binding, reminding us that this is by no means a new phenomenon.
Looking to the animal world, Agi showed examples of genetic engineering ranging from the amazing Spider-goat (goats which have been engineered to produce milk with an extra protein which spider silk can be extracted from) to cats that glow as they have been ‘edited’ to include jellyfish genes.
Agi also touched on issues around IP and ownership of genetically engineered humans, if this becomes a common activity. Referencing the Icarus myth, she asked the question “In a society obsessed with self-improvement, could modification have the potential to alter what it fundamentally means to be human?”
Finally, Agi showed some of her own work – arresting pieces around augmentation of adults (she prototyped a few designs on herself) and babies (she showed some freakishly lifelike models she had made to demonstrate possible applications).
She also showed her designs for hybrid organs bioprinted using human and animal cells. This included an organ designed for people who are at risk of heart attack. Acting as a defibrillator, this organ is designed to recognise when your heart goes into fibrillation and shock it back to normal (using cells from an electric eel). Agi discussed the communications she has had with scientists when designing these imaginary objects and the issues that any attempts at real-world application would have. Despite these issues, the idea and execution is convincing and the idea of this becoming a reality is similtanously alarming and comforting.
The next talk came from Research Scientist Melissa Bovis. Melissa discussed some common misconceptions around nanotechnology – many of these related to the size of what it deals with. She went on to explain that Nanotech operates on the billionth scale…1 billionth of a metre. She showed that it is the very minuteness of the scale that allows scientists to manipulate materials, re-arranging them structurally to create new materials with different properties and behaviours. She gave the example of carbon. Re-arranging the atoms into different structures can give you either diamond, soot ….or carbon nanotubes.
Melissa went on to explain that there is no such thing as a nanobot – at least not in the sense that many people understand them. Conventional robots only exist on the macro scale. However terms like ‘nano cars’, ‘nanogears’ or ‘universal joint nanobot’ are given to nanostructures to describe their shape. Currently, many of them are theoretical. Melissa showed a montage of dozens of products that rely on nanotechnology in their production, ranging from socks through to glass, cosmetics and many food products. She also talked about her research area, using nanotechnology in administration of cancer drugs, and related areas in which nano composite materials can be used to create grafts of organs and body parts. Read about Melissa’s work in the light-activated delivery of chemotherapeutics here and about her Science Museum Lates here.