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 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 for growing living cells, including human cells, in the lab.
Scaffolds are an essential tool in regenerative medicine. Doctors and dentists now use commercially available scaffolds to graft skin and bone, and to repair damaged knees, ligaments and gums. But the products now on the market can be very expensive — between $30 and $1,500 per square centimetre — and are usually derived from animals or from human cadavers.
The apple scaffolding costs pennies. Pelling has transplanted the cellulose structures into a mouse model and observed blood vessels formation.
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.
“We are using structures found in nature that are similar to structures in our own bodies,” he says.
There have been dramatic advances in regenerative medicine over the past decade. Researchers have grown replacement windpipes and bladders for patients and are working on how to produce more complex organs. Pelling wants to produce open-source, low-cost material that will help drive that revolution.
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Pelling’s Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation is interdisciplinary and curiosity-driven, and Pelling, cross-appointed to the departments of Physics and Biology, collaborates with mathematicians, physicists, biologists, engineers, anthropologists and artists.
His unconventional approach has led to numerous awards and a Canada Research Chair in Experimental Cell Mechanics. He is also a member of the Global Young Academy for scientists, and a TED fellow. In February, he described his approach in a TED Talk to a sold-out crowd in Vancouver.