Feature: Biohacking leads to TED spotlight

Most people might not see how growing a human ear from an apple could be the key to disrupting the multibillion-dollar regenerative health sector.

Then again, most people aren’t Andrew Pelling.

The University of Ottawa professor and first Ottawa TED Fellow rose to prominence for his “biohacking” experiments that included carving an apple into the shape of an ear and growing human tissue on it. The cellulose structure of the apple became the “scaffolding” that supported the human skin.

Since then, the 37-year-old Canada Research Chair in biology and physics has performed trials on mice that have shown some promise, with blood vessels even growing into the apples.

That research eventually earned Pelling an appointment as a 2016 TED Fellow, one of only two Canadians and 21 people chosen worldwide.

At a recent event sponsored by HUB Ottawa, Pelling talked about his experience with TED as well as his research.

He said he is looking into expanding his “biophysical manipulation” lab into the ByWard Market in the hope of becoming more connected to the community. He envisions people coming in and posing questions, suggesting ideas and otherwise turning his lab into more of an open-source facility.

This one of the many ways that Pelling believes his facility is different from the average university research unit.

“I made my whole lab an experiment from day one,” he says. “I’m young, I don’t want to run a traditional lab. Unlike many labs – and there’s nothing wrong with this – but many labs are focused on a specific disease or specific problem. Focusing on one problem … for 30 years of my life just scares the hell out of me.”

Pelling and his researchers aren’t afraid to try a bunch of “crazy” ideas, he says. Even if not all of them work, he adds, the process can lead to unexpected breakthroughs.

“We ask some pretty wild, crazy questions, or at least on the surface (they) seem kind of nuts, but we test and validate them with scientific rigour. What you end up doing is discovering all sorts of things that you never thought were possible. That’s led to some really cool innovations. We’ve spun out a company now. There’s all sorts of cool things going on.”

The company, called Spiderwort, sells biohacking material and open-sourced lab equipment to help people grow what Pelling and his team create, meaning customers can become biohackers from the comfort of their own kitchens.

Pelling wants to expand the mandate of his lab as far as he can.

“What the working hypothesis is, if you put a bunch of really creative, curious people in a space and give them resources to fail and try things, then great things will happen,” he says. “And that’s what’s been happening.”

Pelling hopes his research will lead to a disruption of the regenerative medicine business. Currently, replacing bone and skin often necessitates the use of cadavers or products derived from animals, a process that can prohibitively expensive.

Pelling says that a loonie-sized piece of biomaterial can cost US$1,000, whereas he and his lab can make the same product for a fraction of a penny growing the same material from plants.

“For once we may have decreased the cost of health care for material (that) is really deployable and accessible to anybody on the planet,” he says, noting the regenerative medicine sector is projected to be worth $67 billion by 2020, up from $16.4 billion in 2013.

Pelling has been something of a world traveller since his TED Fellow appointment. After returning from a TED Talk in Vancouver last month, he headed to Geneva for the Gathering for Open Science Hardware hosted by the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Pelling is loving his introduction to the TED network, noting he made valuable contacts in Vancouver.

“There’s definitely some payoff down the road. I’m not ready to announce anything (but) I think there’s some pretty interesting opportunities coming up.”