Creating human ears out of apples

A scientist in Canada has come up with a new way of creating body parts using produce found in your kitchen. Andrew Pelling, Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Ottawa, joins Hari Sreenivasan via google hangout to discuss his research.


A scientist in Canada has come up with a new way of creating body parts using produce found in your kitchen.

Andrew Pelling, professor and Canada Research chair at the University of Ottawa, joins us via Google Hangout to discuss his research.

All right, apples and ears.

I don't think of the two things in the same way, so what are we talking about here?

It's pretty obvious, isn't it?

[ Laughs ] Yeah, my lab, we were -- Do you know this movie 'Little Shop of Horrors'?


Yeah, so there's this plant that's eating people called Audrey II, and we were looking at that monster and thinking, 'This is kind of a cool biological entity,' 'cause it's part plant and part animal, 'cause it's got muscles and teeth and that sort of thing.

And we started wondering, 'Could we actually grow mammalian tissues into plants?'

And along the way, we discovered a new type of biomaterial that happens to have applications in reconstructive surgery.

What kind of material are we talking about?

So, plants are primarily made of cellulose.

It's the fibrous part of all plants, and it turns out that material can support the growth of human cells and tissues.

We are, in labs, making different types of organs already, right?

So, how is this process different?

So, one of the main things, main problems with the way we currently do things is these materials are typically sourced from, you know, petrochemical products or animal products or even human by-products.

So, there's this cost and ethics and environmental concerns around all of these materials.

What we've discovered is a way to create very similar materials very cheaply that are just as effective in some applications and can work once implanted as well.

So, how long does this process take?

Walk me through the process a little bit.

Yeah, so, one of my grad students will, you know, go to the grocery store and buy some produce that we're interested in using, and we'll choose different plants depending on what problem we're trying to work on.

And the general process is we'll take that plant and bathe it in detergents, different soaps and things like that, and that removes all the plant cells, DNA, that sort of thing, and you're just left with that fibrous part of every plant, the cellulose.

And so at that point, we can then construct that cellulose in a way that might repair an ear or a part of a bone or that sort of thing.

And how do we know that our human bodies won't reject something that's foreign to it?

That was one of the big questions.

So, we embarked on a series of studies where we'd first study how the materials are accepted by the body -- animal bodies, so mouse and rat studies, and there, what was really exciting was that these materials were well accepted.

So, there's a very minimal foreign-body response, so an immune response, which isn't normal.

And what happened over the proceeding weeks was that these materials would get blood vessels growing inside them, cells invading.

So, they were really becoming a living, integrated part of the body.

And, really, the next step is to go to human trials, and that's what we're preparing for right now.

So, right now, are you working on animal trials, or have you already done those?

We've done them.

There's lots to do from different -- depending on the particular medical application.

And then we've spun out a company a couple years ago that's now working on the first steps to going to human safety trials.

So, the cellulose that you're taking from, like, apple fiber or other fibers, you can construct it into a skeleton of what you want.

Then how does it actually grow?

It's basically just the scaffold.

So, you think about it almost like as a play structure or a gym.

We put that into the body where there's been a defect or an injury or that sort of thing and allow the body to do what it already knows how to do, which is to heal.

And so plants -- It's funny.

Salads are really low calorie because we don't actually have enzymes to break down cellulose like other animals do.

And so what that means is this material stays in the body, it's relatively inert, and it just supports the new cells that are growing into that defect to heal and to create new tissues.

So, that's what's been kind of exciting about this whole thing.

And eventually does the cellulose just get kind of absorbed, or I guess it's kind of covered over by all these other cells, and then your body just thinks it's an ear?

Exactly, yeah.

So, if we provide the shape -- Let's say we're working on some soft tissue in the nose or wherever, surrounding cells that are supposed to be there will invade inside of the scaffold, they'll set up shop, they'll do what they do best, and put down new matrix and proteins and basically reconstruct the area in the way that they want it to be.

So, it's really just providing a bit of support to allow the body to heal.

And how we sort of envision the future is, you know, you might, as a patient, decide what that ear looks like.

You might commission an artist to create the scaffold for you.

So, how far out are we from seeing human trials and then possibly kind of commercial version of this that would end up in an operating theater somewhere?

So, we are not that far out.

We should be entering human trials next year, in 2018.

And at that point, you know, what we really have to -- Our next challenge is just show that it's safe in humans, and then do our diligence there, and then we can start moving onto the bigger trials.

All right, Andrew Pelling at the University of Ottawa, thanks so much for joining us.

Yeah, thank you.