uOttawa prof telling the world about biohacking research

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The world travels continue for a University of Ottawa associate professor who was recently named the area’s first TED Fellow.

Andrew Pelling at TED 2016 in Vancouver

by Stephen Karmazyn

Andrew Pelling, a Canada Research Chair in biology and physics, is in Geneva this week. He is one of 50 scientific innovators invited to the Gathering for Open Science Hardware, or GOSH!2016.

The TED Fellow appointment came with a trip to last month’s TED 2016 in Vancouver, where Mr. Pelling spoke about his research into growing animal muscle and bone with plant materials. The research, which was conducted at the Pelling Lab for Biophysical Manipulation on the uOttawa campus, led to the growth of human cells on an apple that was carved into the shape of a human ear.

It’s this research that led to the fellowship from TED, a non-profit organization devoted to spreading ideas that could potentially change the world.

While being a TED Fellow doesn’t come with a monetary prize, Mr. Pelling said its big value is in the connections he made in Vancouver last month.

“It came with a week of hanging out with people I definitely want to be hanging out with,” he said. “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.”

Meanwhile, the research continues at the Pelling Lab. Mr. Pelling said the concept is simple: If you put a bunch of really creative people together, give them the resources to try things and fail, eventually great things will happen.

“We ask some pretty wild, crazy questions that at least on the surface seem kind of nuts, but we test and validate them with scientific rigour,” Mr. Pelling told OBJ after a recent appearance at HUB Ottawa. “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, is developing open-source platforms for biological research, according to its website.

Mr. Pelling, who serves as Spiderwort’s chief technologies officer, co-founded the company with two of his Pelling Lab colleagues, Charles Cuerrier and Daniel Modulevsky. Spiderwort is creating low-cost, open-source do-it-yourself biohacking kits designed to enable scientific experiments pretty much anywhere.

We are cheerleaders for the global population of citizen scientists and academic researchers, and aim to use our experience to lower the financial hurdles preventing the equitable access to research grade equipment,” the company says on its website.

It says all its kits will be distributed as open-source hardware, software and wetware – the biological equivalent of hardware.

Our products will be part of a larger open platform, benefiting from community input and collaborations,” the company says.

Mr. Pelling said he hopes his research will lead to a disruption of the regenerative medicine business, which is expected to be worth $67 billion by 2020, a significant jump from the $16.4 billion it was valued at in 2013.

Replacing bone and skin often requires the use of cadavers or animal body parts, but Mr. Pelling hopes to change that with his research.

He says that a loonie-sized piece of biomaterial costs US $1,000, whereas he and his lab can make the same product for a fraction of a penny growing the 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 said, “which is really quite compelling and transformative.”

Organizations: Pelling Lab

Geographic location: Vancouver, Geneva, Ottawa US

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