In March 2017, two important discoveries were made in the realms of biohacking and regenerative medicine (aka experimental genetic engineering and manipulation).
Using garden-variety apple slices and humble spinach leaves, scientists made promising advances in the areas of skin graft development and hearth health research; all while surpassing the current capabilities of 3D print-technology using only natural materials.
Not only were apple slices used to make human tissue samples in the shape of ears, but spinach leaves were used to create beating human heart tissue.
So how was all this made possible?
By bringing together the best of man-made machinery and technology with the (literal) fruits of the Earth, scientists have effectively begun to hybridise vegetative structures with human tissue, to create interwoven matrices of transplantable materials.
While the fusion of human tissue with plant life might sound like a monstrous idea that’s come straight out of a Margaret Atwood novel to some of us (specifically those of us who have an interest in speculative science fiction and the Maddaddam trilogy), these significant leaps forward in medical technology hold immensely transformative potential for organ transplant technology and cardiac rehabilitation after a heart attack.
But how do these innovative techniques work and how far away are they from being used in standard surgeries?
Apple slices and tissue growth
Asking how you turn a Granny Smith and a Pink Lady into a human ear sounds like the opening to a bad joke, doesn’t it?
But instead of hitting you with an incredibly witty punchline, I’m going to offer you a straightforward answer to this complex question.
Researchers begin the process of biohacking apples for human tissue growth by using a fruit slicer to cut down thick apple chunks into micro-thin sheets of tissue.
Once these flattened sheets have been shaped into a suitable form (such as that of the human ear), human cells are grafted onto them, creating solid structures that are “bio-compatible” and “implantable”, according to associate professor and lead researcher, Dr Andrew Pelling.
Dr Pelling’s team of researchers at the University of Ottawa have noted that vegetative tissue is particularly “conducive to vascularisation”, meaning that it can be used as a reliable base on which to grow human tissue that has in-built, fully-functional vessels for carrying blood and oxygen.
What’s so exciting about this advancement is that it means a cheap, easily available, and highly sustainable material can be used to grow human tissue that is less likely to degenerate or die from a lack of oxygen or blood flow.
However, as BBC coverage of this biohacking development has highlighted, the fact that Dr Pelling’s findings have yet to be fully tested for safety and feasibility suggests that this new technology will not be available for medical use anytime soon.
Heart health and spinach leaves
It’s not only fruit that’s making a splash on the biohacking scene.
Approaching the construction of human heart tissue from a similar standpoint as the researchers building tissue samples for ears in Canada, scientists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in North America are using spinach leaves as base structures on which to grow human heart tissue.
According to Professor Glenn Gaudette, spinach leaves provide effective scaffolds for growing heart tissue because they have in-built vessels that can be perfused (or washed free) of plant cells and infused with human cells.
The detergent used in the process of perfusing the leaves preserves their structural integrity (including their micro-vessels), meaning that the leaves can be used to transport human fluids and chemicals from organic human tissue to synthetic heart tissue grown on the spinach leaves.
According to researcher Joshua Gershlak, re-constructing the tiny vessels that carry blood and oxygen to the heart has proven extremely difficult for researchers using 3D printing techniques.
In Gershlak’s own words:
“The major limiting factor for tissue engineering or grafting and getting it into the clinic is the lack of a vascular network. And so [current] techniques can’t fabricate microvasculature in the way that the body needs it.”
Hence, the process of growing human heart tissue onto spinach leaves stands to save researchers significant amounts of time and money trying to build a vascular network that already exists (and can easily be borrowed) from organic spinach leaves.
Professor Gaudette and his team plan to release a full study detailing their findings in the medical journal Biomaterials in May 2017. (But you can watch Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s video interview with Professor Gaudette and his team now.)
What does the future of regenerative medicine look like?
With these new developments in the realms of tissue growth and grafting, the possibilities for regenerative medicine and transplant surgery really do seem endless.
Patients with heart conditions and those requiring skin grafts arguably stand to benefit most from the technologies that are currently in development, but those seeking organ transplants could see major beneficial changes to their treatment in the future too.
Plus, who’s to say that these scintillating medical developments won’t be used for cosmetic surgery, genetic modification and speculative human re-design in the next century?
Whether we’re unwittingly on the cusp of a new-age eugenics movement, or we’ve found the key to managing some of our most dire medical needs more quickly and more cheaply, one thing’s for sure: bio-tech is set to get a whole lot more fruity in the coming years.
More from the blog
Skipping Meds: Why should I finish my course of antibiotics?
31st January 2017
What's the worst that can happen if you don't take all your antibiotics?
Antibiotics, adherence and long-term condition management
18th November 2016
Today is European Antibiotic Awareness Day, and the consensus is that we need to stop over-prescribing. This is an important message, but what implications does it have for those taking antibiotics for long-term condition management?