Engineering Organs out of Apples

I have a confession to make. I’ve been holding this back for a really long time and am terrified of what you’ll think of me once you find out the truth. But here goes… I’m in love with apples.

Just give me a second to explain myself, it’s completely justified! They’re notoriously crunchy, super tasty, and literally go with everything (as a snack, in a pie, in a salad). Truly, they fit perfectly into every meal and are the most versatile fruit. They’re so dope that a tech empire named themselves after it.

Now, I know what your next question is: Can we make organs and human body parts out of apples too? (Just kidding, I know it’s not.. unless..?) But to that I say, you’ve come to the right place.

As weird as it sounds, researchers have had tremendous success with this! In Andrew Pelling’s lab in Ottawa, researchers took an ordinary Macintosh apple and removed the apple DNA and cells in a process called decellularization and implanted human stem cells onto it. After the apple cells are removed, we’re left with a cellulose scaffold, shown below.

Modulevsky, Daniel. Scanning Electron Microscope Image of 3D Apple-Cellulose Scaffold. 16 June 2016.

There are a bunch of holes because that’s where the apple cells used to be. This cellulose scaffold is what gives plants their structure and shape, and is what’s so strikingly similar to the human extracellular matrix (ECM), which is what gives our organs their structure and shape.

Next, they implanted human stem cells onto it, and surprisingly, the cells started multiplying and occupying the whole scaffold. This is the revolutionary breakthrough; because once a biomaterial proves to support cell proliferation and the ability to differentiate (transform) into a kidney, liver, heart cell (or any tissue cell), it’s very likely to have the ability to develop into a tissue or organ too.

Modulevsky, Daniel. SEM Image of Implanted Stem Cells in 3D Apple-Cellulose Scaffold. June 2016. (The blue is the implanted stem cells!)

This photo shows stem cells implanted into the scaffold and just how similar an apple scaffold is to how human tissues are organized.

Pre-clinical research shows that if a scaffold is implanted into the human body, cells and a blood supply will actually be sent for the scaffold to grow and stay alive. A ton of experiments have been done to prove that plant scaffolds are biocompatible with the human body too, here. What’s even cooler is the apple scaffold eventually disintegrates overtime as the cells produce a human extracellular matrix (ECM) in its place, restoring a vital organ.

Here’s the problem: there are thousands of people on the wait-list for an organ transplant. The need for organ transplants significantly outweighs the people who can and are willing to donate. People have been working on solving this problem for decades. The alternative methods for sourcing commercial scaffolds are from animals, cadavers or proprietary products which are expensive and controversial. Now, we can use an apple and it costs a dime.

The best part about this is we can make apple scaffolds at home. The key materials you need are an apple, some detergent soap and water, and a microscope if you want to go the extra mile. Biohacking is definitely worth trying if you have the time.

Other Crazy Applications

The Pelling Lab even created ears out of apples! They carved a Macintosh apple into an ear, decellularized it, and implanted human stem cells into it, and this is the result. You’re welcome, you can never unsee that now.

Findley, Bonnie. The Maverick Scientist Making Ears out of Apples. Ottawa, Ontario, 16 June 2016.

This technology is NOT just limited to apples! Think of any porous fruit, vegetable or plant, and it’s probably possible to engineer it into an organ too! Part of the spinal cord has been made from asparagus; bone tissue has been made from carrots; tendon tissue has been made from celery. The sheer vastness of the plant kingdom can be leveraged to identify strategic plant tissues that mimic human tissues; it’s limited only by the diversity of the plant kingdom and the creativity of scientists and clinicians.

This extraordinary idea of engineering an apple into an organ puts the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” to shame (sorry, I had to!). And who knows, the apple that fell on Newton’s head revolutionized the field of mechanics, maybe it can revolutionize the field of regenerative medicine too.

If you made it this far, I have to say, you have amazing taste in the articles you read, especially in the authors you read them by. Have an awesome day, ok? Yeah, you. You reading this. You deserve the world. ~V

For further reads: DJ Modulevsky, Cory Lefebvre, Kristina Haase, Deinab Al-Rekabi, Andrew Pelling’s Apple Derived Cellulose Scaffolds for 3D Mammalian Cell Culture, here.