COULD WE TREAT SPINAL CORD INJURIES WITH ASPARAGUS?
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Overview from TED
Take a mind-blowing trip to the lab as TED Senior Fellow Andrew Pelling shares his research on how we could use fruits, vegetables and plants to regenerate damaged human tissues - and develop a potentially groundbreaking way to repair complex spinal cord injuries with asparagus.
"The real innovation is that we're now able to design or program the architecture and structure of plant tissues in such a way that they could direct cell growth to address an unmet medical need."
Andrew Pelling is a lifelong scientist, full professor at the University of Ottawa and founder of multiple start-up companies. His highly experimental Pelling Lab for Augmented Biology has trailblazed by developing speculative living technologies of the future with the potential to redefine the limits of biology and medicine.
People often think the next medical advancements will come from inventing completely new things from scratch. Just with our imagination, from inorganic materials. So it may come as a surprise that many inventions are still inspired by the natural world around us.
Humans have marvelled at the natural world for centuries – there are countless examples of this in literature and the arts. I’ve written about Ethan Mann’s TED talk on how Sharklet Technologies are replicating the texture of shark skin for medical devices to prevent infections. If we can get inspiration from sharks, subjectively one of the world's coolest animals, why not other things?
That being said, I can’t say I have ever marvelled at an asparagus quite the way Andrew Pelling does in this TED talk.
Pelling's award winning lab focuses on vegetables and how they can be used medically, inside the human body, as a scaffold to grow and sustain human cell growth. In his first TED talk, in 2016, he described implanting a piece of apple. Now it is asparagus’ turn to take on the huge task of scaffolding a human spine.
I think it is incredible work. The biology is complex, although Pelling describes it simply and effectively, and the idea is definitely a little odd, but compelling. Plus, if human trials go well, it could have huge medical ramifications and change the way some people interact with the world.
POWERED BY PLANTS...
Bar a few rebellious childhood phases, I have always eaten my fruit and veg. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks they are bad for you. But Pelling isn’t suggesting that you eat a few extra vegetables to avoid getting sick:
“We invented a way to take these plants and strip them of all their DNA and their cells, leaving behind natural fibers. And these fibers could then be used as a scaffold for reconstructing living tissue.”
Pelling presents a good reason to use plants as internal scaffolds - their natural fibers can’t be broken down in the human body. This is perfect for a long-lasting scaffold that is biologically compatible, as it allows cells to grow around it.
“We were able to demonstrate that the inertness of plant tissue is exactly why it's so biocompatible. In a way, the body almost doesn't even see it, but regenerating cells benefit from its shape and stability.”
But there wasn’t a specific use until Pelling decided to have asparagus for dinner one day:
“I was at home cooking asparagus for dinner, and after cutting the ends off, I was noticing that the stalks were full of these microchanneled vascular bundles. And it really reminded me of a whole body of bioengineering effort aimed at treating spinal cord injury."
Spinal cord injury can severely debilitate people, leading to loss of motor function that can stop people from walking, and contribute to the loss of independence. There isn't any treatment for this, it is an unmet medical need. Pelling was aware that this could be a longshot:
“So, could we use the asparagus and its vascular bundles to repair a spinal cord? This is a really dumb idea.”
DOUBT IS THE KEY TO SCIENTIFIC RIGOUR
Pelling’s core message is that ‘dumb’ ideas, with vigorous testing, may not be so crazy after all. Suggesting to someone that you can scaffold the human spine with asparagus falls on the ‘seems crazy at the first listen’ spectrum. But what ‘seems crazy’ just needs to be rigorously tested. Then tested again, and then tested some more.
Scientists don’t have ideas and immediately put them into practice, they often go through years of testing and refining before they even consider testing on humans.
Doubts are important for safety, and Pelling had many:
“I constantly felt this weight of doubt when it came to thinking about spinal cords. So many scientists were using materials from traditional sources, like synthetic polymers and animal products - even human cadavers. I felt like a complete outsider with no real right to work on such a hard problem.”
So he pulled together a team of neurosurgeons, clinicians, biochemists and bioengineers to plan experiments. They began, as many medical trials, with animal experimentation to investigate if the microchannels in the asparagus scaffold could guide neuron regeneration:
“The basic idea is that we would take an animal, anesthetize it, expose its spinal cord and sever it in the thoracic region, rendering the animal a paraplegic. We would then implant an asparagus scaffold between the severed ends of the spinal cord to act as a bridge.”
Animal experimentation isn’t an easy thing to discuss, paralyzing an animal so they can't move their back legs isn't a pleasant task or concept. I am forever glad I don’t have to do this for my day job. In an ideal world animals wouldn’t have to suffer for our medical advancement, but the risk is often too high to start testing on humans. It doesn't make it an easy choice:
“My team struggled every day with these types of experiments, and we constantly asked ourselves why we were doing this.”
But, this was their method and it seemed to be working. The paralyzed rat could move its leg, beginning to walk:
“We started to observe something extraordinary. This is an animal that received an implant. Now she's not walking perfectly, but she's moving those back legs and she's even starting to lift herself up. And on a treadmill, you can see those legs moving in a coordinated fashion. These are crucial signs of recovery.”
It still took five years to publish the data. This was because of doubt - you can’t just jump at the first experiment, it has to be repeated and repeated. Pelling elaborated:
“Doubt drove us to repeat these experiments again and again, to the point of almost bankrupting my lab. But I kept pushing, because I knew these results could be the start of something extraordinary.”
Extraordinary it was, becoming the first time anyone showed that tissues can be used to repair such a complex injury:
“This technology has just been designated a breakthrough medical device by the FDA. And this designation means that right now we're in the midst of planning human clinical trials set to begin in about two years.”
The team has created a spinal cord implant, an asparagus scaffold, and they have a right to be proud of the innovation:
“See that it moves and bends and has the same feel as human tissue. And you know, I think the real innovation is that we're now able to design or program the architecture and structure of plant tissues in such a way that they could direct cell growth to address an unmet medical need.”
I was blown away at how a simple idea, using something you can find in your fridge, could potentially have huge ramifications for the thousands suffering from spinal cord injuries. Yes, it will take time for the human trials to run, another rigorous doubt-filled process, but all that scientific rigor was, and continues to be, worth it.
“The challenge we face is that while doubt can be destructive to your mental health, it's also the reason why scientific rigor is such a potent tool for discovery. It forces us to ask the difficult questions and repeat experiments. Nothing about that is easy. And often it becomes our responsibility to bear the burden of the hard and sometimes heart-wrenching experiment. This ultimately leads to the creation of new knowledge, and in some really rare cases, the type of innovation that just might change a person's life.”