The first organ transplant took place more than 60 years ago. Since then, organ transplant and growth technology has made some enormous—and strange—advances. Exhibit A: human tissue grown from ear-shaped apples, an idea from biohacker Andrew Pelling and his team at his Canadian laboratory.
Pelling’s research lab at the University of Ottawa is a playground for creative scientific minds. “We aren’t focused on any particular problem and we’re not trying to solve any particular disease,” he said in a recent TED Talk. “This is just a place where people can come and ask fascinating questions and find answers.”
A frequent question in the Pelling Lab is, “What can we make out of this garbage?”
“I love looking through other people’s garbage,” Pelling said. “It's not some creepy thing. I’m usually just looking for old electronics, stuff I can take to my workshop and hack.”
While hacking electronics, Pelling began to wonder if the same methods—taking something apart, tinkering with the pieces, and building something new—could be applied to, say, plants and animals. “What I'm really curious about is if one day, it will be possible to repair, rebuild, and augment our own bodies with stuff we make in the kitchen,” he said.
He and his team began experimenting with hacking plant tissue. They started with leaves, but found the waxy coating too hard to take apart. One day one of the researchers saw a coworker eating an apple, and something clicked. They turned their attention to fruit instead. Once you get past the apple’s skin, its flesh is unprotected, which makes it easier to remove the material within, in a process called decellularization.
The next step was to implant animal cells into the empty apple "scaffolding" (a term used in tissue engineering for the structure used to facilitate new cells). The cells took to their new habitat and grew quite successfully. Looking at the apple-shaped animal tissue, Pelling realized it might be possible to shape human tissue the same way.
He asked his wife, a skilled carver, to whittle Macintosh apples into ear-shaped slices. The slices were repopulated with human cells, resulting in a pretty successful new ear (or at least human tissue shaped like an ear).
There's more to this than just having fun. "Commercial scaffolds can be really expensive and problematic, because they're sourced from proprietary products, animals, or cadavers," Pelling said in his recent TED Talk. "We used an apple and it cost pennies."
Not one to keep his triumphs to himself, Pelling is determined to make this ear-factory technology available to the public. He has published all the instructions online and will soon start selling the necessary equipment so that people can grow their own body parts at home.
Apple ears are just one sector of the Pelling Lab’s work. For more on the team’s engineering and biohacking projects, check out their website.
Banner images via YouTube // BRich Spare- Tire.