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Scientists Re-Engineer The Human Body And Brain

 The great engineers of the twentieth century conquered the outside world: planes, skyscrapers and rockets. Today, some of the best engineers are looking inwards at spaces like the human body and discovering ways to fix and enhance it.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Adam Piore, author of “Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human,”(HarperCollins Publishers/2017) about society’s advance toward a bionic age and the scientists behind it.  

The video below documents one of the bionic subjects of Piore's book, Hugh Herr.

Piore went on a walk with Herr, visited a genomics institute in Beijing, and interviewed scores of scientists working on re-engineering the human body. In his book, he tells the stories of people like Pat Fletcher, who learned to see using her ears, and Corporal Isaias Hernandez, who regrew thigh muscle with the help of doctors.

Interview Highlights:

On how studying psychology and reporting on genocide in Cambodia piqued his interest in this topic:

I’m interested in human resilience. I also covered 9/11, and I’ve talked to many veterans that have PTSD. I was in Iraq for Newsweek, and I’ve always been interested in how people overcome their limitations. I just discovered one of the most amazing stories along those lines right now is being unleashed by this revolution in bioengineering. We’re unlocking untapped resilience in the human body and mind. So I sort of went looking for people who were on the ‘bleeding edge’ of these technologies. And I wanted to tell some of their stories and use that as a way to examine the science of what we’re learning about where our limits lie and how we might overcome them. 

On what motivates doctors and researchers generating these changes:

It’s unlocking that untapped resilience, and it’s the people who are living at the extremes and who are losing things….One of the most incredible experiences I had while I was reporting this book was actually following around a brain surgeon for the day when I was writing about deep brain stimulation. He was helping a boy who was 10 or 11 who had dystonia. His limbs were gradually freezing up, almost as if they were turning to stone, and he couldn’t run and play with his friends. And they were fixing that. So although there are alarming ethical considerations, and they have implications for us becoming superhumans, what’s really driving this revolution is the need to restore lost function to people and to improve the quality of life for people who have disabilities or are sick in some way.

On the story of Lee Sweeney and the ethical dilemmas of bioengineering:

I wanted to look at somebody sort of at the nexus of this controversy. Somebody whose efforts encapsulated both sides. And Lee Sweeney – he studied muscles and the way muscles work down to the microscopic level…Because (Sweeney) was an expert on this, he was invited to speak at all these conferences for people with duchenne muscular dystrophy –  for the parents of children with duchenne muscular dystrophy – which is just a terrible disease because basically your muscles tear themselves apart every time you move. And parents would come up to him afterwards and ask why nobody was working on a therapy to help them, and he felt bad that he wasn’t. So he started examining technologies he might use. And at the same time, his beloved grandmother, who was a gardener, fell and broke her hip and sort of lost the will to live because she was so weak. So he was very interested in age-related muscle wasting. 

So what he decided to do was he found a way to tweak this gene in mice...It was a gene coding for a protein called myostatin. And if you knock it out people’s muscles grow larger than they would otherwise. Because there’s not this sort of circuit breaker on it...So he engineered this. The idea being that it would delay the onset of duchenne muscular dystrophy  – muscles would build up even as they were being torn apart. It could help elderly people, and the potential to help people is great. 

But as soon as this paper was published, he was besieged by calls from athletes and meatheads who wanted him to test it out on them. Including a guy who was the coach of a high school football team...So Lee Sweeney today has continued on this path and thinks it’s worth it, but he also consults with the World Anti-Doping Authority to try to come up with ways to test for this.

On how enhancing the human body will affect the human lifespan:

I have written about that, and I did explore some of that. I have a chapter on regenerative medicine. the way, one of the leading institutes for regenerative medicine is in North Carolina at Wake Forest. When we’re able to actually replace organs, that will help a lot, obviously. And people have begun to grow organs in labs and stuff….And also the myostatin thing that Lee Sweeney was talking about – age-related muscle wasting and all of that. But what happens when we get old is almost a systemic failure on the cellular level that we’re just beginning to understand. It’s so complex. But the same kind of computing power –  the same tools that people are using to fix things...they will be trained to reverse engineer the aging process as the years go on.

Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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