Ottawa

Ottawa biophysicist hopes asparagus may one day help repair spinal cords

A delicate spear of asparagus might look like a delicious side dish, or at least a serving of good-for-you veggies, but Ottawa biophysicist Andrew Pelling saw something more. 

Early trials show some promise as paralyzed rats able to move their legs

University of Ottawa professor Andrew Pelling and his Pelling lab are using tiny slices of asparagus as a spinal cord implant. Early stage research in rats shows promise. (Andrew Pelling )

A delicate spear of asparagus might look like a delicious side dish, or at least a serving of good-for-you veggies, but Ottawa biophysicist Andrew Pelling saw something more. 

"I was cooking with it one day and noticed how it … looked like a spinal cord," said Pelling. "It's full of all these little capillaries along which water gets transported." 

The idea was born to use a section of an asparagus stalk, to "insert into damaged regions of the spinal cord, to guide neurons back together and reconnect," said Pelling on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

Spinal cord scaffolds made from asparagus sections, at the University of Ottawa's Pelling lab. (Andrew Pelling)

Pelling, 42, heads up the Pelling lab at the University of Ottawa and holds a Canada research chair in biology and physics. He is best known for figuring out how to grow human tissue on a slice of apple. His 2016 TED talk on that topic has surpassed 1.3 million views. 

From apples to asparagus to rats

The first step was to take asparagus and strip the stalks of DNA and plant proteins using detergents. 

"What you're left with is the fibrous tissue of the plant. You know, the stuff that gets stuck in your teeth," said Pelling. 

The rats went from being paralyzed from the waist down and then within about 12 weeks had their legs moving again and coordinating.- Andrew Pelling

The next step was to test the asparagus implants on rats with a severe spinal cord injury. Researchers had cut their spinal cords, and then surgically implanted tiny sections of asparagus to see if new neural pathways would form.

"The rats went from being paralyzed from the waist down and then within about 12 weeks had their legs moving again and coordinating," said Pelling. "They weren't walking perfectly by any means. But there was clearly a really important enhancement of motor control with this implant."

Pelling remembers the first time he saw the rats move their legs. "There might have been some expletives." 

But the concept behind it is not new.

"Providing neurons with structural features, channels along which they can migrate and that will guide them across an injury site. This idea has been around for a long time," said Pelling.

FDA approval

Pelling co-founded the biotechnology company Spiderwort, a company that was created to spearhead the next stage of asparagus research. 

Asparagus at the Pelling lab. Andrew Pelling was cooking asparagus when he came up with the idea the vegetable's cellulose might have a different application than dinner. (Andrew Pelling)

"Just last week, we were able to announce that this particular technology has been designated a 'breakthrough device' by the FDA. And that's really important."

It's not clear who might get to try out the technology, or when, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nod means a "very accelerated timeline to get to clinical trials," said Pelling.

Ultimately, the hope is that some day asparagus will help "people who have suffered some sort of paralysis from the waist down within a very short timeframe."

Pelling's lab also grew human cells over an ear-shaped scaffolding made from slices of apple. His 2016 TED talk on this subject has been viewed 1.3 million times. (Alexis Williams)

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now