Friday, August 22, 2014
Enhancement: Anthony J. Melchiorri envisions a world of renegade biohackers and the powers to fight them
My guest today is another author who, like me, is fascinated by DNA. And that's not just a coincidence: Anthony Melchiorri is a bioengineer working on tissue engineered blood vessels for children with congenital heart defects. When he's not busy with his research and PhD dissertation, Anthony writes. His first book, Enhancement is a fast-paced, near-future thriller about genetic engineering, organized crime, and the abuse of advanced technology. And now Anthony has two more books coming up, The Human Forged and The God Organ, both near-future science fictions that explore the consequences of advanced biotechnologies and the improper use of DNA.
Welcome to Chimeras, Anthony!
EEG: First of all, tell us a bit about yourself: I know you are pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering. Can you tell us more specifically what you're working on?
AJM: In one sentence, I’m developing a method of 3D printing custom tissue engineering scaffolds for children born with heart defects.
Heart defects, or congenital heart disease, is the most common form of birth defects worldwide. Many of these defects require surgery to restore normal blood flow, which is absolutely essential to a child’s growth and well-being. In cases where surgeons must correct the anatomy of a patient, they often are forced to use grafts, or artificial blood vessels, that are made from a limited array of sizes and shapes. This means that the surgeon must cut and shape a graft (or more than one) while the child is on the operating table. Plus, the grafts that are currently used in these surgeries are made from materials that do not grow with the patient. This means that the grafts must be replaced as the child’s body changes and grows. Not to mention, these grafts used today often cause blood clotting or calcification, which can lead to more complications!
So, my work addresses these challenges in two ways.
First, we are using 3D printing to create custom grafts suitable for a patient’s specific needs. This means that we can take a medical image of the patient using commonly used techniques like MRI or CT scans. From that computer image, we can make a computer model of a custom implantable graft for the patient. That graft will be unique to the child and designed specifically for them, eliminating the time a surgeon needs to decide how to address the heart defect.
Second, the big development in my research is the material we are using to construct these grafts. It is very difficult to print a material that can withstand all the forces and motions of a pumping heart. Not to mention, we have to make sure that the material is soft and flexible—and, of course, it must be able to be 3D printed. To add to our list of challenges, we wanted to design a material that biodegrades over time. That means our graft will encourage the patient’s own tissue to grow over the implant. Over time, our 3D printed implant will disappear and be replaced entirely with the patient’s own tissue. No more implant! The child is left with only their own cells which should adapt as their body grows. This, in theory, eliminates many of the challenges associated with the permanent grafts used today.
That was long but I hope it all makes sense!
EEG: Your latest release, Enhancement, is set in the future and deals with "black market genetics." Tell us about the premise behind the book.
AJM: Genetic-based therapies are commonplace. But not everyone is satisfied with using genetic-based technologies as the medicine. I think we often dream about a future, especially in science fiction, where we can easily modify our bodies with a simple injection of viral vectors, nanoparticles, or what have you loaded with new genetic material. We dream of superhuman strength and stamina, improving our cognitive capabilities, or maybe just keeping our skin free from wrinkles.
Of course, anything related to medical devices (including toothbrushes!) are regulated by the FDA. That means you need sometimes decades of research and millions of dollars just to get a new medical-related product to the market.
Some people aren’t willing to wait that long. Christopher Morgan, an enterprising bioengineer, tries to jump on the underground market of illegal genetic enhancements. But his forays land him behind bars. He thinks he’s learned his lesson until someone else from the world of black market enhancements places a hit on Chris’s head. Chris has to figure out why someone wants him dead and finds that he can’t escape the world of black market DNA as easily as he once thought.
EEG: Do you see any of the issues you deal in the book becoming a reality in a few decades?
AJM: I think it’s entirely possible that we’ll see renegade biohackers messing with genetic enhancements just like skilled computer hackers exist today. So much of medical research is available through the internet. Everything can be accessed, from experimental methods to gene sequencing information. And it’s not just this availability of information that makes this a reality. There’s been a small, but increasing movement of do-it-yourself bio-research with the decreasing price and increasing availability of discount laboratory equipment and supplies. It might sound silly but it’s true. (There are a couple books on the subject by Marcus Wohlsen that cover the subject.) The “biohacking/biopunk” movement is relatively small, but so was the community of computer software and hardware developers just decades ago.
So, I think we’ll have plenty of capable people interested in do-it-yourself research for fun or for noble causes. But there will undoubtedly be people looking to make a mint through whatever means necessary. Or they might just be out to cause trouble.
EEG: Through your field, you get to see state of the art medical advancements and technology. What amazes you the most of such technology and what, instead, scares you the most (meaning: what if it gets in the wrong hands, etc.)?
AJM: One of the most amazing medical technologies that I’ve seen in used today is the combination of medical imaging and 3D printing. A couple of collaborator’s at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC recently used high-resolution medical imaging to visualize the internal organs of a set of conjoined twins. Amazingly, they used these astounding images to create a 3D model of the infants and their entangled organs. They 3D printed these intricate models like stackable LEGOs. Using these models to guide them, the team of physicians and surgeons planned out their surgery. The separation was a huge success.
While my currents works focus on genetic enhancements, I think a more frightening technology related to the bio-punk movement is bio-terrorism. If synthetic biology really takes off, it could be possible for a renegade at-home “researcher” to engineer, for example, a deadly, contagious virus.
EEG: What's your next writing project?
AJM: I’m about ready to release two new novels. One is set to release in early September. The Human Forged, follows an ex-soldier who is abducted and imprisoned in an off-shore medical research facility. The only person that can help him is someone he never knew existed—his clone. This book is more of a sci-fi action/adventure novel. Another, will be released at the end of September/early October. The God Organ is a near-future medical thriller based in Chicago. It’s centered on the LyfeGen Sustain, an artificial organ designed to give its users virtual immortality. Instead, its owners are dying. The inventor of the organ, Preston Carter, must figure out why before the organ kills him too. The novel involves elements of conspiracy and financial thrillers with biotechnological based science fiction. Besides those two upcoming releases, I’m currently working on the second book in the Black Market DNA series. This one incorporates the fear of engineered diseases I was talking about earlier!
EEG: Wow, between your PhD and your forthcoming book releases, you sure are busy! :-) Best of luck to you and thanks so much for visiting Chimeras today!
AJM: Thanks so much for having me on the blog.
You can find Anthony on Amazon, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for his newsletter to make sure you won't miss the launch of his forthcoming books.