That may be one of the strangest headlines you have read in a while, but believe me, the rest of this post is not going to be any less strange. And yet, the work behind that headline could open up the possibility of using everyday produce, such as apples and asparagus, as tools to help treat life-threatening problems.
Let’s back up a little. The idea started in the lab of Andrew Pelling, a scientist who describes himself as a “biohacker and avid dumpster-diver”. He and his team were chatting about the human-eating monster flytrap plant featured in the movie/musical Little Shop of Horrors and wondered if it would be possible to grow that kind of plant in the lab (I told you it wasn’t going to get any less strange).
Anyway, as Pelling explains it, the conversation eventually ended up with them experimenting with apples to create cellulose scaffolds.
“We took a totally innocent McIntosh apple, removed all the apple cells and DNA and then implanted human cells. And what we are left with once you remove all those apple cells is this cellular scaffold. This is the stuff that gives plants their shape, and texture.”
Next he wondered if you could use that kind of scaffold for a truly valuable purpose and not just for creating copies of fictional movie monsters. So he thought about ears. He wondered if you could use that cellulose scaffold as the basis to create replacement ears.
“So we come along, plant some mammalian cells on it and they start multiplying and fill up the scaffold. As weird as this is, it’s actually really reminiscent of how our own tissues are organized. And we found in our preclinical work that you can implant these scaffolds in the body and the body will send in cells and a blood supply and actually keep these things alive.”
But what does this have to do with stem cells you are probably asking? Well, researchers have been trying to create replacement ears – and other body parts too of course – using stem cells and artificial scaffolds for some time (we have blogged about this here.) Pelling says his approach gets around some major problems.
“Commercial scaffolds can be really expensive or problematic because they can be made from proprietary products, animals or cadavers. We made these from apples, and they cost pennies.”
But he doesn’t stop there. If you can make ears from apples why not a spinal cord or blood vessel from asparagus? Pelling says when you look down the stalk of an asparagus spear it looks a bit like a blood vessel, or even the spinal cord. Which got him thinking,could he use the channels in asparagus to link severed nerve cells, such as neurons, back together.
It may seem like a bizarre notion but he’s launched some pilot experiments trying to do just that in rats.
The question, of course, is can you do this in people? The answer, of course, is we don’t know. But great ideas often begin with someone posing a thought provoking, occasionally oddball, question, like this one from Pelling:
“What I’m actually really curious about is that if one day it might actually be possible to repair, rebuild and augment our own bodies with stuff we make in the kitchen.”
You can read about Pelling’s work, and see his TED talk at OZY, which bills itself as “the world’s most unique magazine”.