Thursday, June 29, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Canadian scientist and entrepreneur Andrew Pelling has made a career of veering off in new directions and testing unconventional theories.
Working his way up in traditional labs, Pelling quickly knew he didn’t readily fit in with his peers. After he devised various unusual research projects, other scientists asked him about the applications for the experiments. A lot of times he didn’t have one.
“To me … it was a signal that knowledge and curiosity in and of itself had no value unless they could put a dollar sign behind it, or create some medical application,” said Pelling at the Institute of Food Technology conference at the Sands Expo Center on Monday.
Of all the projects to have come out of Pelling Lab, the one that has received the most attention features an outlandish aspect for which Pelling has become known.
It started out as a joke in a bar in 2013 to replicate a monster in the 1986 classic “Little Shop of Horrors.” But Pelling and a group of scientists developed what could be a revolutionary process.
The monster, Audrey ll, is an oversize Venus flytrap-like plant that lives off human blood.
“The question came up one day, ‘Can we grow this monster?’” Pelling said. “From my perspective, this was a reasonable question. It’s kind of half-man, half-mammal. It has musculature, it has teeth. There’s a tongue, it sings, but at the same time there are clear plant characteristics, too.”
For Pelling and his colleagues, who focus on creating biological systems that don't exist in nature, trying to re-create Audrey ll was right up their alley.
Some of Pelling’s students at the time were working in decellularization, which uses T enzymes and detergents to remove cells and DNA from an organism or organs, leaving behind an extracellular mass.
Pelling and his staff tried to use decellularization on a leaf to grow muscle fibers using human cells. If they could get the fiber to contract, then they could have a mouth.
After several experiments, they learned a leaf would not work. Leaves have a wax coating that prevents dehydration, which in turn prevents enzymes and detergents from penetrating the structure.
So the team turned to an apple. Peeling off the skin to expose the flesh, a student thought, would aid decellularization.
After successfully placing muscle fibers in a small square piece of an apple, Pelling and his team moved forward with a more ambitious approach.
“This sort of harkens to the materials you would use to repair and rebuild the human body — tissue engineering and regenerative medicine,” Pelling said.
One of the most well-known cases of tissue engineering was when a human ear was grown on the back of a mouse in the mid ’90s using cow cartilage.
Despite the ability to do such experiments, monetary costs and ethical dilemmas come into play while using animal parts. Now with the ability to use a plant-based material to do the same job, some of those cost and ethical questions subside.
“The next obvious experiment is let's put the apple in the mouse,” Pelling said. “We want to move away from growing cells in an apple in a dish and finding it is actually biocompatible with the body.”
After generating grant money for his proposal, Pelling and his team dove into the experiment. Students went to the grocery store, bought some apples, took them back to the lab, decellularized them and stuck them in a mouse.
After carrying out the project, about eight months after the implantation, one result shocked the team the most.
“This thing is now becoming a living part of the mouse's body. This piece of apple!” he said. “So, we’re getting closer to Audrey II: It’s part mouse and part plant. It’s not eating people yet, but we’re stepping toward it.”
What began as a novelty has evolved into something that could change the future of health care.
“This re-creates what’s already being done, but with far simpler, cheaper material than what’s already on the market,” he said. “It solves a lot of problems faced by the industry.”
With real-world applications of this work available, Pelling started Spiderwort Inc. to expand the work.
"This can potentially change people’s lives,” he said. “We’ve shown it works in a dish. We’ve shown it works in preclinical studies in animals. Well, the next step is, ‘Can we do this in humans?’”
Spiderwort is in the process of commercializing this process and leading their first human clinical trials.
“That was in a process of four years. We went from a crazy idea of trying to grow a crazy man-eating plant, and now today we’re embarking on human-safety trials.”