Using Fruits and Veggies to Grow Human Tissue
To a cook, asparagus is a side dish that’s a sign of spring. To University of Ottawa biophysicist Andrew Pelling, the vegetable is a potential source of new, inexpensive biomaterials to help repair the human body.
Pelling, Canada Research Chair in Experimental Cell Mechanics and TED2017 Senior Fellow, is a rising international star whose unorthodox approach to biology is inspired by the hours he spent as a teenager dismantling stereos and CD players and creating something new from the parts.
Now he is doing the same with biological systems — including fruits, vegetables and flowers.
“Can I take a biological system, dismantle it, mismatch the parts, and then put something back together in a new and creative way?”
Pelling and his colleagues stripped an apple of its own cells and DNA, using boiled water and liquid dish soap. That left them with the cellulose structure that makes an apple crunchy. It proved to be an effective scaffold or matrix — essential tools in regenerative medicine — for growing living cells, including human cells, in the lab.
The apple scaffolding costs pennies. Now he is branching out to asparagus, flower petals and other fruits and vegetables.
He suspects that the cellulose structure of flower petals — thin and flat — may prove ideal for growing skin while the tube-like architecture of asparagus might be better for coaxing nerves or blood vessels to grow.
There have been dramatic advances in regenerative medicine over the past decade. Pelling wants to produce open-source, low-cost material that will help drive that revolution.
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