Please tell us about yourself.
If you’ve ever broken a bone, you know the process to recovery is slow and painful.
Now imagine neither splint nor surgery were enough to seal the fracture. Instead, your doctor says you need a bone graft, a procedure that involves taking bone from elsewhere to fill the gap created by your injury.
You have a choice: Allow a surgeon to cut bone from another place in your body or get some new bone from a dead person. Both are risky: Bone from another body can carry disease, so doctors have to be careful about screening donors. Grafts from your own body can still be rejected and cause a painful infection or in more serious cases lead to nerve damage.
Nina Tandon wants to do away with both of these options. Instead, she wants to help you grow your own bone. From your own cells. In the exact shape and size you need.
Her company, called EpiBone, is close to making this reality. Using stem cells and a special type of incubator, she and her team have grown durable, living bones.
But the road ahead will be challenging. So far, only a few trials of bones grown in a lab have been tested in people, and few comprehensive studies of their longterm effects have been done. The field of regenerative medicine itself is only a little over a decade old.
A biomedical engineer, Tandon works at Columbia University’s Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering, where she uses electrical signals to direct cell growth and differentiation. The electricity mimics the natural signals that bodies produce and encourages cells to thrive in the lab. So far, Tandon has coaxed heart cells sampled from rats to develop into beating tissue, but her ultimate goal is to blaze a trail for future scientists to grow whole organs for human transplants and pharmaceutical testing.
With EpiBone, 34-year-old Tandon has made a career out of putting things back together. But this time, instead of cathodes and wires, she uses body parts.
Tandon began building human tissues as a biomedical engineering student at Columbia University. She started with the strips of muscle that line the heart, and moved on to the delicate layers of skin that protect our bodies from outside elements. In 2013, she used neonatal heart cells and a bit of electrical stimulation to build a 5mm by 5mm piece of engineered cardiac tissue capable of beating.
Now she’s using stem cells to build personalized bones.
“I see this as being a part of a bigger story that’s integrating biology into part of the supply chain,” Tandon says. “We’re starting to see biology as a technological partner way beyond just making medicines.”
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
“I was encouraged to explore how biology affects our day-to-day experience of life.My sisters are colour-blind, and my brother is night-blind — both of which are genetic disorders. My work with EpiBone is inspired by the thousands of patients needing affordable personalised bone graft solutions, and by the emerging world of biotechnology and all the promise it holds.”
Tandon’s fascination with science and the human body started young. She and her three siblings were encouraged to try all sorts of science experiments as kids, and her interest in electrical currents was first sparked when she discovered her siblings suffered from eye conditions like night and colour blindness. “I was very interested in all these electrical currents that underlie the nervous system and I started learning how those currents are also involved in almost every process in the body, from embryonic development to wound healing, and that is what I wanted to follow.”
Tandon started taking college-level calculus classes at 14. “I remember my dad telling me that I was good at math and science and if I didn’t study them it would be a disservice to women, because everything in society is telling girls not to.” Tandon, like most young people, had interests that ranged from fashion design to poetry. But science won when she headed down the STEM path and never looked back, acquiring a Bachelor’s in electrical engineering, a Master’s in bioelectrical engineering, and a PhD in biomedical engineering from Columbia University.
You started your career in electrical engineering at a telecommunications company. What drove you to switch your career focus to biomedical engineering?
I grew up with a front-row seat to hereditary diseases, with two color-blind sisters and a night-blind brother. I’d always felt a strong pull to the intersection of technology and biology. Once I took a tech job, it was only natural that I’d start chasing biology. Plus, I worked with many PhDs, and I got a little jealous of all their academic cred.
After working for a year in telecommunication, I enrolled in a physiology class at my local community college. I started seeing parallels between built technology and the technology inside our bodies – the physiology of bones and the technology of phones, for example. DNA being like hard drives, and neurons like cables and wires. In grad school, I took that exploration even further, into electrodes for wound healing and the ways that cell differentiation could be influenced by technologically created environments. My early experience gave me an engineering mindset for thinking about biology – which fits because living cells are some of the greatest engineers.
Tell us about your work
As the CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, a company that uses a patient’s own stem cells to grow live human bones for skeletal reconstruction, Tandon is obsessed with the connection between technology, the human body and creating solutions that are “so high-tech, they’re almost organic.”
There’s no one more excited about science than Nina Tandon. She’s a 32-year-old tissue engineer at Columbia University and she’s growing… wait for it… heart! That’s right, she’s growing one of the most complex organs in the body.
Not only does Nina grow living heart, she makes it sound easy.
“I like to say it’s a lot like a mix between gardening and cooking because you need the right ingredients and then you need to follow the recipe. And in our case a little system we call a bioreactor… we flow the ingredients through the tube and we have cells inside the system and we have electrical signals come from the outside and often we learn what the recipe should be.”
How does your work benefit the community?
Bone, Tandon says, is the most transplanted tissue after blood; grafts are required in millions of procedures, ranging from cancer to trauma, dental surgeries and congenital defects.
Growing bones in a lab might have a Frankenstein-ish quality but this technological breakthrough is preferable to the alternatives. Currently, doctors transplant pieces of bone from another part of the patient’s body or use cadaver bones; the latter method runs the risk of the body rejecting the donor implant. In contrast, EpiBone only needs a few of the patient’s fat cells (stem cells are extracted from those and grown into bone) and a detailed CT scan of the area to be healed. “The shape is dictated by the shape of the defect derived from the scan, and it takes about three weeks to engineer those cells into a piece of living bone tissue that’s ready for implantation,” says Tandon. “We’re just mimicking a natural process, using the cells that grow the bones every day in our body to do it [outside]. Being able to use your own cells means you’re empowered to heal yourself as well.” EpiBone is emblematic of a growing trend in biomedical engineering that harnesses the healing power of the human body, using stem cells and similar technologies in everything from cardiac care to cancer. It might be close to a decade until these lab-grown bones can be used routinely in patients, but Tandon is confident their implants will be quickly adopted by the medical fraternity.
Tandon’s immediate focus is on starting human trials at EpiBone but her mind is already zooming ahead. “I’m looking forward to a time when we can really extend our longevity and vitality, as opposed to just extending our lives. We will learn more and more about the intelligence that lives throughout our body, not just in the brain but also with the awareness and intelligence of the cells that make up our body and connecting with them to make up new technologies. I think we’ll appreciate our lives and bodies better when we learn what power we have to heal.” When she puts it that way, a mind-reading meditation app suddenly seems like a great idea.