Grow Your Own Pacemaker

Science, technology, and life.
April 17 2008 4:07 PM

Grow Your Own Pacemaker

Another good story from this morning's

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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: Ivan Oransky of the

Wall Street Journal

writes about the development of a "

." He focuses on the work of researchers Ira Cohen and Michael Rosen:

By inserting genes into rat heart cells growing in a dish, they were able to create a beating pattern that was faster and more regular than had been seen before. ... [Their first step was] to load up a common cold virus with a pacemaker gene, and then used the virus to successfully infect heart cells in a dish. The infected cells ended up with the gene and began making a pacing current they had lacked. Next the scientists tried the technique in dogs with slow hearts. The gene transfer worked. Parts of the dogs' hearts that had been beating 25 to 40 times per minute were restored to a normal 60 beats per minute. ... [Later] they stitched pacemaker genes into adult stem cells, using a technique that doesn't require viruses, and then injected the altered cells into the heart. ... [W]hen the researchers tested the pacemaker stem cells in dogs for six weeks, the cells behaved just as they hoped. As a precaution, the researchers showed that they could turn off a cellular pacemaker if it becomes hyperactive with a drug ...

This is a great illustration of the point I was trying to make two weeks ago about the superiority of flesh-based technology . First we had flesh but no pacemakers. If your heart lost it rhythm, you had no backup. Now we have electronic pacemakers. They solve the problem of unreliable flesh, but they introduce the problems of electronics. Inserting them requires surgery. Their batteries are finite, and, as we learned from the Medtronic fiasco , their wires can fail. Worse, like other electronic devices, they can be hacked -- in this case, with potentially lethal results.

The long-term solution is flesh. Unlike electronics, flesh can be grown inside your body, avoiding the need for surgery. It's self-correcting, self-repairing, and self-renewing in a way that electronics aren't. And there isn't an easy way to hack somebody else's genes -- at least, not yet. For the same reason, we do need a way to remotely reset your biological pacemaker if it runs out of control. That's where the aforementioned drug comes in. But if you're in the pacemaker market, you had that problem already.

Oransky ends with a wonderful quote from Cohen: "Just like Lasik is a better solution than eyeglasses, a biological pacemaker would be a better solution than an electronic one." Having written about Lasik before, I like the analogy. At the time, I saw Lasik as a potential enhancement of human powers , with athletes boosting their vision beyond 20/20. But as Cohen points out, you can also look at it the other way: Instead of outfitting you with gizmos we've come to think of as normal -- glasses or contacts -- we just fix your flesh. Sometimes the most effective technology is also the most natural.