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Photo by Alexis Williams

Meet your friendly neighbourhood biohacker, Professor Andrew Pelling

By François Levesque on February 29, 2016

A maker’s gotta make… and destroy… and then remake. Ever since he was a kid, Professor Andrew Pelling has loved rummaging through garbage to find things he could deconstruct, destroy and rebuild. That curiosity and DIY attitude have led Pelling to create a unique, multidisciplinary lab at the University of Ottawa that has made discoveries that could potentially change the biomaterial industry for the better. He also just became Ottawa’s first TED Fellow for his work demonstrating that human cells can thrive on the fibrous structures of plants (e.g. the ear that grew out of an apple). More on that later.

Andrew Pelling, photo by Peter Thornton .

Andrew Pelling, photo by Peter Thornton .

I caught Professor Pelling a few days after TED2016, still riding a high from his experience. The TED folks have been great, “just like family” he says, ever since he got news he was named a 2016 fellow. They’ve supported him each step of the journey from hashing out big ideas on his talk to the nitty gritty details of presenting to a TED audience.

“It’s the first time I’ve given a talk with such deliberate conscience and effort behind it. It makes you think about how you want to present something”.

The greatest benefit of becoming a TED fellow? According to Pelling, it’s being instantly plugged in to the very influential network of fellows, individuals and organizations that attend TED. There are 400 fellows and everyone seems willing to offer support or share ideas.

“We have incredible support and ability to amplify our work  – just through the fellows. And then you go to TED and make connections and everyone wants to help you. If you cultivate these relationships, they pay off. It really allows you to get your message out to a global audience.”

Because Pelling’s work is entirely publicly funded, he’s happy to share the results of his research with Canadians.

“I want [Canadians] to know what we do, and I want them to participate in our work as well.”

You see, the Pelling Lab is not your traditional laboratory.

“My lab is experimental and it’s been so from day one. I made it clear it wasn’t going to be a traditional lab.”

Why does my lab have to exist on a campus? Why can’t it be a storefront in the Byward Market?

Pelling has active members of the lab who are not academics. There are also artists and makers/hackers, particularly those who work on bio hacking or DIY biology. “We’re big on the DIY scene and fostering relationships across the globe,” he says.

Pelling seems most interested in having creative people in a room and letting them explore, fail and try things, which according to the Ted Fellow is “where the most interesting discoveries come from.” That willingness to experiment even extends to where his scientific work takes place.

“Why does my lab have to exist on a campus? Why can’t it be a storefront in the Byward Market? It brings up all sorts of questions around what a lab is, what a research lab is and how it operates and also how we can have very direct interactions with the community, not just on ideas but also around helping people.”

Pelling is devoted to the idea of democratizing research and making it open source so it can benefit others.  The main interest of the Pelling Lab is to create living, functional, biological objects that do not exist in nature. Some of its latest discoveries, like the apple ear, could have significant impacts on the broader biomaterial sector, a $30 to 90 billion industry.

The apple ear came about almost by accident.

“We were joking around about how to recreate Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. A plant with muscles and teeth… we could do that!”

Through this process of testing, failing and trying again, Pelling’s lab had the idea to use plant cellulose from an apple, as simply and with as little processing as possible. The hypothesis was that apple cellulose would act just like any other scaffolding, allowing human cells injected into the fruit to grow. And it did.  (Want more details? Read here)

“We did what these really expensive materials do, but we did it out of nothing! And then we thought, people could do this at home if they wanted to.”

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CO2 incubator being beta-tested. Photo by François Levesque

To grow human cells, you need specialized incubators that typically cost $5-$10K. In its simplest form, the incubator is a warm box that can control how much CO2 is in its internal atmosphere. While on sabbatical, Pelling took a crack at building an incubator out of things he found in the garbage. Except for one sensor, he was able to do it. He then released it as an open source project and the response has been incredible. Through a spin off company named Spiderwort he and his colleagues are now beta-testing kits that are a fraction of the cost of traditional incubators.

The fact that the cell transplant worked in mice has given them the confidence to look at funding through grants or philanthropic organizations. Pelling’s Lab is now working with a clinician at the Ottawa Civic Hospital to conduct a real clinical trial at some point. “We’re probably a year away from really knowing if this is really worth our time to pursue as a clinical trial and then a couple more years to do our due diligence.”

Nevertheless, the work they’ve done so far has opened the door to the possibility of low-cost, globally accessible biomaterial, something that could revolutionize aging or injured bodies the world over.