Ottawa 'biohacker' Andrew Pelling wows TED crowd with an apple ear

The grocery store is not generally where you buy supplies to regenerate body parts. But Andrew Pelling used an apple from Loblaws to grow a human ear, sort of.

A human ear grown on an apple? A spinal cord from asparagus? Dare to dream, says Ottawa scientist

Ottawa scientist Andrew Pelling got some gasps from the TED audience as he showed Petri dishes with ear-shaped apple pieces, growing human cells. (Ryan Lash/TED)

The grocery store is not generally where you buy supplies to regenerate body parts.

But Andrew Pelling bought an apple at Loblaws, washed it, had it carved into the shape of a human ear — and grew actual human tissue on it.

Pelling, 37, a Canada Research Chair in biology and physics at the University of Ottawa, is a TED Fellow and the first speaker at the TED conference in Vancouver today.

You could hear a gasp — "whoa" — "what?!" from the packed auditorium of tech illuminati as Pelling flashed a slide showing the Petri dishes with apple-grown ears in them.

"This is stone-age, simple biology," said Pelling, who calls himself a "biohacker."

"What I'm curious about is whether one day, it will be possible to repair rebuild and augment our own bodies with things we make in our own kitchen."

Pelling's lab grew human cells over an ear-shaped scaffolding made from a carved Macintosh apple, bought at Loblaws. (Alexis Williams)

Scaffolding for pennies

To be clear -- there are no people walking around with apple-based ears. This technology is years away from even clinical trials, says Pelling.

But his lab is experimenting with very cheap materials to create what's known as "scaffolding" — the firm structure — to grow skin or other organs.

This isn't genetic modification. His team is literally using soap, water and alcohol to wash away the cells of, say, an apple, from the cellulose structure that makes an apple firm and crunchy.

The cellulose then becomes the "scaffold" for human cells — in this case, epithelial HeLa cells — to grow into a needed form.

An early trial in mice has shown little immune reaction to an apple implant, and blood vessels even grew into the apple, suggesting some promise,  he says.

Asparagus dreams

The theme of this year's TED conference is "Dream," and Pelling spent his youth pulling apart stereos and CD-ROMs, trying to make new things out of the motors and lasers inside.

These days, his mind wanders when he looks at a stalk of asparagus — noting how similar the vegetable's stalk looks to blood vessels or a spinal cord.

The vegetables aren't just gimmicks but a profoundly cheap potential solution to an expensive problem, he says.

Other types of "scaffold," sourced from proprietary products, animals or cadavers may cost $40,000 for a piece the size of a coaster, says Pelling.

"We can make the same amount of material for pennies."

He admits the approach is provocative and may not work, but he values taking risks and "playing," as part of science.

"We are not the only ones working on this, but we are the only ones using an asparagus."

About the Author

Lisa Johnson

@lisasj

Lisa Johnson is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news around the province with a specialty in science, nature, and making sense of complicated things. Before becoming a journalist she pipetted DNA and watched fish mating dances en route to a degree in evolutionary ecology.

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