Interview: Adam Piore And The Jaw-Dropping Science Of Bioengineering

May 1, 2017

In his new book, The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human, author and award-winning journalist Adam Piore says the new frontier that intrigues scientists and engineers today is the human body.

He says amazing work and research is underway that melds technology with biology. These innovations can heal devastating injuries or even rewire the brain.   

Piore tells us about this evolving science through the stories of the people who develop the technology and the people who are transformed by it.   

Piore recently sat down with All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

You are a journalist by profession, a foreign correspondent at one point. So how did you come to write this book?

I covered a lot of things, I covered Congress, I lived in Cambodia, and I went to Iraq, but one of the things that has always intrigued me in my journalism is stories of human resilience. It’s always fascinated me how people overcome adversity and are able to live with setbacks. 

So a few years ago I came across the story of an incredible scientist named Hugh Herr. And his story so fascinated me that I sort of followed along that path and went sort of down the rabbit hole into these new technologies – bioengineering – which are unleashing untapped resilience in the human body. I found that the most exciting stories of human resilience in the United States are often being unleashed by these biotechnologies.  

Speaking of Hugh Herr, he survived a rock climbing incident that led him to develop more advanced forms of prosthetic legs that he calls “wearable robots.” Would you tell us about that?

Hugh had a really remarkable story. He was not that great a student when he was a teenager, he was a C and D student, but he lived to rock climb and he was a nationally known athlete, one of the best up and coming rock climbers in the country. He went ice climbing with a friend in New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. They got stuck in a blizzard and they wandered into the wilderness, and they got lost and they almost died. They were saved at the last moment but not in time to save them completely. They both had frostbite and Hugh’s legs were amputated below the knees.  

And the doctors told him he would never run or climb again. And every day, he would wake up dreaming that he was running through the cornfields behind his house, and then he’d wake up and his legs would be gone. But he didn’t stay in bed very long. He began tinkering with his prosthetics and he was back on the climbing wall. And he made them seven-feet long and he made blades that he could slip into crevices. And he became an even better rock climber than he had been before. 

And this tinkering sort of led him to tinker when he was down on the ground because his prosthetics were so uncomfortable. He began taking engineering classes. And flash forward 20 or 30 years, he’s one of the leading bioengineers and prosthetic engineers in the world. He’s at MIT. And he has designed these bionic limbs that really kind of show what’s possible, that allow him to walk again.

Pat Fletcher is featured in the part of your book where you explore how bionics can enhance our senses. Fletcher survived an industrial accident which left her blind. Twenty-five years later, she was able to use new technology that allowed her to “see” with her ears. How likely are we to see more Pat Fletchers out there with this type of technology?

Where Hugh just wanted to climb and run, Pat loved nature and she was blinded in a grenade factory explosion and could no longer see and years later she is seeing mountains again. It’s an example of the incredible plasticity of the human mind. What she discovered online was this device that was created by this Dutch engineer, which they call a sensory substitution device and it’s based on this insight that we see with the brain and not the eyes. 

If we can get the information from the outside world into our brain, it’s the world’s most sophisticated pattern recognition machine. What this device does is it takes the pixel in pictures and turns them into different tones, sort of like a wall of sound. Over time Pat’s brain learned to recognize these sounds and route them to her visual cortex. And she can actually make sense of the world. She’s regained depth perception. She can see the leaves on trees, she can see mountains. She can see the cracks on sidewalks. It’s pretty remarkable.