Andrew Pelling’s lab is practically a grocery store, with produce from apples, asparagus, and broccoli to strawberries and mushrooms amongst the test tubes and beakers.
About a decade ago, biophysicist Pelling began tinkering with materials that could reconstruct damaged or diseased human tissue. Surrounded by fresh produce in his lab at Ottawa's University, Pelling and his team have turned an apple into an ear and asparagus into scaffolding for spinal cord implants.
The idea for Pelling’s research came from Little Shop of Horrors. In the film Audrey II, a large plant, comes to life and feeds on human blood, and Pelling thought, 'could we grow an Audrey II?'
Pelling’s plan to grow muscle cells on a leaf scaffold to grow a mouth didn’t work. However, he was not deterred. This failure led him to question whether muscle cells couldn't grow on the leaf because its waxy coating prevented it from properly decellularising.
So, Pelling switched from leaves to produce. For two years, he and his team decellularized fruits and vegetables and grew mammalian cells on them. This time, it worked.
Decellularization for implantation was developed in the mid-1990s. By removing the genetic material that makes an apple an apple, one is left with plant tissue. By removing all the plant DNA, RNA proteins and anything that could cause immune response or rejection, Pelling excavates the fibre of a plant.
When Pelling noticed the resemblance between a decellularized apple slice and an ear, he saw the true potential of his experimentation. He wondered if the apple scaffolding would ‘be accepted’ and vascularize if he implanted it on a living animal. The test results were positive.
After his breakthrough with the apple in 2016, Pelling turned to asparagus. As he was cooking, Pelling noticed that the asparagus looked like a spinal cord, leading to his next project.
Pelling implanted decellularized asparagus tissue under the skin of a lab rat. In just a few weeks, the tissue had been integrated into the rat's body and turned into living tissue with blood vessels. Rats with severed spinal cords were also implanted with the asparagus tissue and were able to walk again.
Whilst using asparagus tissue as scaffolding to repair spinal cords is no miracle cure, it is undoubtedly revolutionary in regenerative medicine.