A central challenge in organ creation is the development of materials that can host the new cells within the body, holding the organ’s shape and organization. In a synthetic approach, a molded polymer scaffold can hold the shape of an organ, then biodegrade as new cells gradually replace it. Alternatively, real donor organs can be washed of all the donors’ cells until they are white “ghost organs”—collagen structures that are then colonized with a patient’s own cells. In either case, the man-made and organic biomaterials are commercially produced or harvested and processed, at great cost.
Billions of dollars change hands in the biomaterials sector each year, replacing skin, cartilage, bone, and whole organs. The industry attracts talented researchers ready to profit from their intellectual property, but it also prices out most of the world. For example, few people can spend $800 per cubic centimeter of human decellularized dermal allograft tissue to reconstruct a badly torn rotator cuff in the shoulder, but at less than 1 cent, the same amount of apple is well within reach.
Take a McIntosh red apple from the grocery store (or a home garden), slice it and wash it with soap, then sterilize it with boiling water, like so, and you have a cellulose mesh ready for human cells. Implanted under skin, the scaffolding quickly fills with cells from the surrounding tissue, and blood vessels soon follow. After eight weeks it is still compatible with the body, with no attempt by the immune system to reject it. The plant segment is brought to life as part of an animal.
Though some of Pelling’s work involves genetic manipulation, his enthusiasm lies more in the physical manipulation of cells—prodding them with tiny needles, stretching them with lasers, or putting them into containers of various shapes to see how they organize themselves. This last approach has potential applications in some of the thorniest problems in medicine, such as paraplegia.
The tiny capillaries in asparagus stalks happen to be the right size and shape for spinal cord repairs. Pelling and a local neuroscientist have shown that nerve cells from mice grow nicely into those channels, and while spinal cord implants tend to break down in the body, plant cellulose does not. “At the same time, it’s really inert—it’s akin to titanium,” says Pelling. Similarly, rose petals can form the scaffolding for skin grafts.
“This kind of exploratory work is important, because it expands the toolkit,” says Jeffery Karp, a biomaterials expert at Harvard Medical School. “Basic discoveries provide more options for those of us in translational medicine.”
Pelling Lab is in Canada, where it benefits from a permissive regulatory environment. Unlike Europe, where there has been strong resistance to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or the United States, with its history of controversy around early human development, Canada encourages its nascent biohacking movement as an adjunct to the health research community. In 2011, Canada’s national public health department even sponsored a symposium about “Our Post-Human Future,” whose parting discussions debated “Can Technology Be Governed?”