Biophilia – Organ Crafting
Royal College of Art
Biophilia – Organ Crafting
By focussing on an artisinal approach to organ crafting rather than industrial manufacture, Biophilia provides a fresh and thought provoking perspective on discussions around lab grown and 3d printed organs.
Biophilia – Organ Crafting
Biophilia – Organ Crafting The silkworm Bombyx Mori has been domesticated for more than 5000 years and its efficacy optimised over 200 percent just in the last 100 years of selective breeding. If genetically modified silk worms would be capable of weaving the scaffold for your donor heart instead of a machine – what would you prefer? Since the silkworms’ genetic code has been decoded in 2008, it could be altered to weave biodegradable scaffolds for organs, tissues, biosensors and even products instead of their cocoons - from ‘hardware’ to novel ‘wetware’.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
Genetically modified silkworms, raised by organ craftsman, would weave individual scaffolds for human replacement hearts. Such novel silk industry could establish high-tech-applications - not solely in the biomedical field, but also in the consumer products market to allow for the development of biodegradable products. The example of the future craftsman is used as vehicle to understand the value and today’s potential of manual work and the importance of it for our communities. With this idea I'm aiming to promote the potential for biological crafting as a (old) new way of living and working. As cardiovascular diseases are rising globally to the number one causes of deaths, we are now facing an increasing scarcity of donor hearts. The silken heart scaffolds could answer such demand – seeded with cells, gathered from the patient, they would offer individually grown organs without rejection as consequence. During the creation of the silk scaffold, the patient has the unique chance to see his novel organ before the transplantation is performed and to get to know the organ craftsman behind the process. Perhaps, this preparation could lead to a more positive attitude towards the treatment and even impact on the healing process. Fully individual organs would also respond to irrational fears of the unknown and feelings of alienation, often described as the Post Transplant Honeymoon Syndrome. Doesn’t dealing with living material require such humane way of production that – besides considering solely functionality on a technical level – also equally responds to our very human needs?3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
The facets of socio-cultural and economic life implicated in the characteristics of production and consumption are intriguing. How do they converge at the very centre of innovation in biotechnology and design and thus, I’m interested in examining the history, causes and the potential of this ‘felt’ of influences and in particular, the effect of time, interaction and human factors within it. Dealing as a designer with interest in scientific methods, that are imminent being implemented and upcoming, even controversial – especially with regard to synthetic biology and genetic engineering – means confronting ourselves with endless strands of fears and deeply human questions. But is there perhaps a way we can interact with a controversial technology in an acceptable way? What if this technology even holds solutions to improve our deep human desires? Text for "4. The Process": 1.a) What I found particularly striking is that we domesticate the silkworm for more than 5000 years, but up to now we still haven’t found a technology that can mimic the specific properties of real silk. During my research at University College London, I found out that even the most complex machines for bio- spinning silk proteins don’t master the quality achieved by a single worm.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
Continuation of "3. The Intent": 1.b) Only the silkworm seems to have the ability to balance the exact right amount of body size (material) and its spinning nozzle. After finishing a cocoon the production nozzle even turns into edible food – silkworm pupae is very commonly eaten in Asia and India. If not eaten, the pupae get ground for being used in the cosmetics industry. Only time, experience and mulberry leaves are required. Currently, consumer products are built to only appear stabile and long lasting, whereas the quality is so poor that we dispose of it without being given the option of maintain and repair it. So, why not considering products from scratch biodegradable? Most products only last for a certain amount of time, especially in the IT world. If we would utilise genetic engineering to grow silk scaffolds for objects, we wouldn’t need development of expensive machinery, certain elitist knowledge to engineer tools for building such machines, no digging for the steel, no logistics of the materials to turn them into fully functional machines and no electricity to run all of this. With regards to cultivating human tissues, like organs, the laboratory personnel has to nourish, clean, and observe the matter meticulously to improve its growth. Many steps can be automated surely, but dealing and responding appropriate to unpredictable parameters - which matter biological origin requires - demands experience as embodied in a craftsman, that can’t be made redundant. I particularly liked the idea of an organ craftsman, who devotes specialist knowledge and time to create an individually tailored organ on demand. What is being currently fully unconsidered is the traumatic experiences people deal with, when they are about to receive a donor heart. This dramatic experience sometimes induces personality change, breaking up relationships or feeling alienated by carrying another person’s heart. Surviving the intensive surgery very commonly causes a post-transplant-depression - an emotional dilemma such as guilt and feelings of benefitting of another persons’ death. Receiving a donor heart comes with additional risk of immunosuppression – the rejection of the new organ. In order to prevent this, strong medication has to be given to enable the healing of the organ, before the body can reject it. This draining therapy also keeps the patient in constant anxiety and increases the distressful experience of the treatment. There is also no such thing like a tangible preparation for receiving a donor heart, as the organ has to be transplanted in a very fast procedure within hours after the donor has passed away to keep the organ fresh. Once the ill organ is being replaced the patient awakes with the abstract – and painful - certainty of being partly someone else from now on. The research was executed in a multi-scale approach, by visiting scientists in various institutions, talking to silkworm breeders, visits to archives and collections, all accompanied by extensive material tests (photos can be found in a Flickr- set on the project's website).5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
Genetic engineering would in the case of Biophilia allow for altering the silkworm' construction plan in order to weave the shapes we need instead of their cocoons. The worms only feed on white mulberry leaves (Morus Alba), which they require three times a day plus devoted human labour. The silkworm has to be fed around four weeks before it starts spinning the silk for the following three-four days. What sounds like a rather long-winded production, saves effectively all time for the non-necessary recycling afterwards. Silk as material is currently on high demand – not only for the biomedical market, but also for fibre-optics, sensors and the IT-market. Its excellent material properties make it a high-tech material with very modest production effort and the usage of local resources. Sericulture could be promoted as main business, but also provide serious extra income as cottage industry. Understanding why the silk industry e.g. in 17th century Europe has vanished, it becomes obvious that advances in genetic engineering could tackle and address issues of silkworm diseases: Specific silkworm breeds are more resistant nowadays and even allow to be fed on other plants than mulberry. The demand in biotechnology would open a new field for business and the modest effort in running sericulture would make natural resource-deprived areas like Europe interesting as a location for it. Locating the material delivery (silk) and the processing biotech-laboratories (tissue engineering) nearby could even improve the overall progress of the field and open up new collaborations.