The cells in our bodies are perpetually subjected to mechanical forces that affect our health and well-being – forces that emanate from many places, including the movement of our muscles, organs and blood.
These physical cues directly influence normal processes in our bodies, such as stem cell differentiation, muscle regeneration, cell growth and even cell death. When our cells lose their ability to sense and respond to these cues and the ability to regulate their own physical properties, our health becomes drastically compromised and disease is often the inevitable outcome.
However, our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms through which cells sense and integrate physical information has, until very recently, been constrained and complicated by the nanoscale realm at which these events take place. Enabling us to reach the actual scale of biological events, nanobiotechnology is forging new tools to explore the molecular mechanisms behind biological processes. In doing so, the frontier of nanomedicine is rapidly growing and with it the promise of new drug-delivery systems, diagnostics and therapeutics to treat and prevent disease.
Dr. Andrew Pelling, Canada Research Chair in Experimental Cell Mechanics, is at the leading edge of this brave new world of tiny structure, devices and particles. Known for developing advanced biophysical techniques, including tiny sensors that act as 'fingers' to literally feel cells, Dr. Pelling is interested in a gauntlet of experimental physical stimuli to manipulate, re-purpose and control cell biology.
“I like to say that I disrupt traditional scientific approaches to create low-cost, open source materials for next generation medical innovations,” says Dr. Pelling, also a cross-appointed professor to the Department of Biology and the Department of Physics at the University of Ottawa. “The cells in our body have a remarkable ability to adapt and respond to the physical world. By pushing this natural ability to artificial limits, I hope to develop simple and cheap ways to repair and regenerate our bodies after injury and disease.”
Dr. Pelling heads the Pelling Lab for Biophysical Manipulation, a highly exploratory space at the University f Ottawa where scientists, engineers and artists work alongside each other in a culture of cross-disciplinary creativity. Known for physically manipulating and re-purposing living systems, Dr. Pelling and his lab have discovered an astonishing ability of cells to deliberately adapt and respond to highly artificial and unusual stimuli.
“We are curious to know if we can use artificial physical signals to ‘biohack’ living cells,” explains Dr. Pelling. “We expose cells to mechanical forces, control the shape of their surroundings or simply grow cells in environments in which they are not normally found. None of these approaches require genetic manipulation or pharmaceuticals – we simply change the physical environment to direct cellular behaviours.”
Although researchers are getting better at editing the human [Unknown A1] genome, Dr. Pelling says that genetic manipulation is still unreliable in the long term, ethically challenging and introduces complicated preparation steps into any production chain. He has demonstrated that it is possible to control all sorts of complicated cellular functions without resorting to genetic manipulation.
In a study published in PLOS ONE, Dr. Pelling successfully ‘biohacked’ apple specimens to create a supporting matrix for living, artificial human tissues without the use of genetic engineering, employing instead standard cell culture techniques practiced worldwide. Traditional biomaterials are often produced from lengthy and environmentally damaging chemical processes or are derived from animal products or human cadavers. All of these options are expensive financially or environmentally, or problematic from an ethical perspective. Dr. Pelling's research offers a new approach where the material is grown from a plant, is biodegradable, inexpensive and yet still imparts all of the benefits that researchers expect from traditional biomaterials.
“Biomaterials are desperately needed in regions of the world that are lacking in infrastructure or are afflicted by war,” says Dr. Pelling. “Our low-cost, open source biomaterials can be created with plants, soap and water, and will give local medics and hospitals a much needed alternative to expensive pharmaceutical products. Our aim is to augment our ability to repair and regenerate the human body while simultaneously and dramatically lowering the cost that this kind of healthcare normally entails.”
When possible, Dr. Pelling makes a concerted effort to employ open source code and hardware (Processing, Python, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, etc.) and share his knowledge as openly as he can. The Lab’s work has been shown at Maker Faires, artsci installations, Pecha Kucha and many other avenues that are not traditionally the domain of an academic scientist. Dr. Pelling’s boundary-defying work recently won him a prestigious TED Fellowship with the epinomious nonprofit known for spreading ideas in the form of short, powerful talks online.
“Our cross-disciplinary approaches often interest many people who tend to be outside the world of academic science and this has led to fruitful interactions with the Maker, DIYBio, Bioart and Biohacker communities,” says Dr. Pelling. “The history of science is one of unintended consequences – you never know from what discipline or practice the next groundbreaking idea or discovery is going to come.