Decellularization: Apples to Earlobes

Our bodies are not like LEGO blocks or computers because we cannot swap out our parts in the living room while watching television. Organ transplants and cosmetic surgery are currently our options for upgrades, repairs, and augments, but post-transplant therapy can be a lifelong commitment because of rejection. Elective surgery costs more than a NIB Millenium Falcon LEGO set. Laboratories have been improving the processes and associated treatments for decades but experimental labs and even home laboratories are getting in on the action as some creative minds take the stage. These folks aren’t performing surgeries, but they are expanding what is possible to for people to do and learn without a medical license.

One promising gateway to human building blocks is the decellularization and recellularization of organic material. Commercial scaffolds exist but they are expensive, so the average tinkerer isn’t going to be buying a few to play with over a holiday weekend.

Let’s explore what all this means. When something is decellularized, it means that the cells are removed, but the structure holding the cells in place remains. Recellularizing is the process where new cells are grown in that area. Decellularizing is like stripping a Hilton hotel down to the girders. The remaining structures are the ECM or the Extra Cellular Matrix, usually referred to as scaffolding. The structure has a shape but no functionality, like a stripped hotel. The scaffolding can be repopulated with new cells in the same way that our gutted hotel can be rebuilt as a factory, office building, or a hospital.

Decellularizing Plant Matter

When plants are decellularized, we are left with cellulose, but that scaffolding can be repopulated with animal cells. Conversely, decellularized animal parts can be stripped to collagen then repopulated with plant cells. This is some next-level Frankenstein stuff and may confuse some vegetarians.

Stripping plant cells from the scaffolding may seem like a mysterious dark art, but it uses easy-to-find ingredients and nothing more exotic than a glass container. Pumps and heaters help, but you can decellularize some fruits and vegetables in your kitchen right after reading this. This process is pretty well understood, and there are already published processes. The first step is to rupture the cell walls by freezing the fruit or vegetable. Slices work well because they expose a lot of surface area and you can plainly see the internal structure of your subject afterward. Once frozen, the slices can be bathed in a solution of SDS and water. SDS is “science talk” for soap. Ordinary dish soap and water may do the trick but commercial SDS is inexpensive and easy to buy from the regular sources. This definitely carries the message of, “Try this at home.” The water will become cloudy as cells leak out, so change it regularly.

Fibrous material, like broccoli, will take longer than soft fruit like strawberries. Wood is also a candidate, but it is actually removing the lignin, and the directions are different. Seeds resist this process because their shells are made to protect against adverse conditions. As ghostly fruit goes, dark seeds on a ghastly white skeleton are pretty trendy.

Decellularizing Animal Parts

Decellularizing animal parts is trickier, but it can be more rewarding depending on what you want. A ghost heart on the shelf is probably going to start some conversations. At a minimum, you will find out which of your friends are extremely squeamish. As of writing this, there were no pictures of a decellularized heart under a black light. Just putting that idea out there.

Animal cells have more and different substances to dissolve so there are more and different steps. Fortunately, many of the steps can be performed with inexpensive ingredients, some of which can still be found in a kitchen or medicine cabinet.

This process is best explained by [The Thought Emporium] who manages to keep an in-depth video under seven minutes without talking over our heads. Maybe it goes without saying, but there are clips of a heart before decellularization so be prepared if that sort of thing isn’t your thing. Also, there is more “science talk” like Retrograde Coronary Profusion, but he explains that nicely.

Lend Me Your Ears

[The Thought Emporium] does a phenomenal job bringing outrageous science to the doorstep of any curious hacker, but if we want to push the limits of what is possible with these scaffolds, we turn to [Andrew Pelling] who has taken the stage at TED talks for his work innovation with recellularizing plant matter. His most notable work is taking apple scaffolds and growing mammalian cells on them in the shape of a human ear. At its most basic, apples were decellularized, carved to look like an ear, and seeded with cells.

Cells grown into a scaffold belong to the receiver, and since they are the host’s cells, they don’t reject like donor material would. This alone makes research important, but making new organs for people on waiting lists is even more vital. At the hacker level, we may see a home-grown Spock ear transplanted in our lifetimes. [Pelling] sees notable similarities between asparagus and a human spinal cord.

Whether decellularization and recellularization will have medical use in the future is up for grabs. What’s clear, though, is that you can play around with this cutting-edge biotech right now, in your own kitchen. Get to it!

40 thoughts on “Decellularization: Apples to Earlobes

    1. I checked their website out a bit and watched the ~20 minute presentation, apart from their plans there was nothing I didn’t know already (indeed there were some arguments or insights missing, obviously masking extent of the profit motive, and correct placement of blame, which is necessary to fully understand the situation) but all in all their arguments against circumcision are pretty evident, and should sway any prospecting parents (or adult males) to avoid circumcision.

      Regarding their plans, in the phase where they intend to use donor foreskins as scaffolds, remove their cells and replace with acceptor cells, the ethical question inevitably pops up: where to source human foreskins? from dead people? they say from europeans, … so a for profit company begging for donations, intending to monopolize IPO, which advocates so arduously against circumcision plans to buy/trade (hence financially encourage) european foreskins??

      Is it really necessary for the dead scaffold to be a foreskin? geometrically the foreskin resembles a cilinder (if you flap the inside half out), so any cylindrical piece of skin of similar dimensions would work (assuming they succeed in the rest). From an ethical perspective which of 2 following scenario’s is more immoral? Rewarding european urologists (or their hospitals) and thus encouraging them for “mining” foreskins through disinformed “consent”? Or mining cylindrical skins from the shafts of the people who encouraged or profited locally: urologists, parents, skin graft companies CEO’s,board members, investors, employees, skin care product testing labs CEO’s, board members, investors, employees etc? Sure these people might suffer from “buried penises” etc afterwards, just like some of their patients did, perhaps they should have thought twice about their actions, perhaps they should have read some texts on informed consent, perhaps they should have read mroe carefully the law, to find if there exists any interpretation that makes this in fact illegal. Perhaps instead of begging for donations they can source them from the people who made the mistakes in the first place? Their presentation insinuates that the doctors involved were unaware of the negative consequences, even though they saw the negative consequences time after time? Were they also unconsciously selling them to the highest bidder?

      Back to the technology, I am highly sceptical they can do it: when organs in specific shapes with specific roles grow, their cells rely on hormonal diffusion and temporal sequences to interpret where this specific cell is and what it should do. Cells have internal memory of what cell type they are. We have not even systematically mapped out the human cell types, how can we hope to print the right mixture? How do they intend to provide for blood flow? Just hope a fractal of veins will automagically appear, with vein sinks and vein sources in the right position to match the acceptor’s penis? How do they intend to place the huge diversity of mechanoreceptor cells? How do they plan to place a fractal of neurons and nerve bundles, and again terminating at the right position to match with the acceptor’s penis nerve bundles, how do they intend to have the neurons printed in roughly the right position to actually connect in proper ways? If this was possible, why can’t we simply treat paralysed people?

      Further while from a health perspective the individuals problems started with the amputation of the foreskin, that in and of itself cascades into more problems. Let me make an analogy: your eyelids serve to keep your eyeballs both moist, clean and disinfected. Suppose you amputate someones eyelids without informed consent, then this person will start getting eye problems because the eye needs to be kept moist, and at some point perhaps even an infection. Now the persons eye is infected, and the person is not able to see well due to all his eye problems. The person at some point falls from the stairs and breaks an arm. Suppose some company quasimagically succeeds in making non-rejecting eyelids. Even if you place them on the person, his eye may have been irreversibly infected, and his arm is still broken, and then people look around helplessly for donations instead of establishing the original violation?

      Even if they succeed in the unlikely task making a new foreskin, one of the foreskins jobs is using the inner half (the mucous membrane) to keep the head of the penis moist, to prevent it from keratinizing in contact with air. Yes keratin. A thin layer of scar tissue irreversibly decreasing the sensitivity of the head of the penis.

      I feel _very_ sorry for the victims of these crimes, and I hope for them they can find a solution within their lifetimes, and *perhaps* this company can somewhat improve their situation, but they present it as much easier than it seems.

      The sad truth is probably that the best we can achieve is criminalize future circumcision, and that any technology as described will either not perform as desired (i.e. restoring sensitivity etc), or not be ready in time to serve those who need it as the future generations will hopefully be spared the same fate.

      1. Hi,
        So what they are doing is taking foreskins from adult cadavers who have consented, donated their bodies to medical research. The organization would never take tissue from infants as doing so is against their ethics. Check out the potentially NSFW FAQs: foregen.org/faq

        So far they have successfully regenerated the foreskin and will published their results in the Journal of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine. Check out their potentially NSFW newsletter, foregen.org/the_foregen_newsletter_19_april_19th_2018.

        The website does have links to more information about tissue regeneration and what the intended surgery will be. Basically, skilled microsurgeons will replace the tissue. They intend to conduct animal trials this year and begin human clinical trials next year.

        1. If they take it from adult cadavers, why specifically european ones? If one donates their body for medical research I did not know that also encompassed private IPO research, I always assumed that it should serve the public good if I donate my body…

          I understand taking tissue from infants is against their ethics, but that does not automatically mean taking tissue from live adult europeans is!

          I will check out the newsletter later today

          1. The research is performed in Italy. That’s why European adult cadavers specifically are used for these experiements. Besides, how likely is it that adult American cadavers would have foreskin? Keep in mind that American infant circumcision rates were in the 90% range in the 1960s, 80% range in the 1980s and have just recently dropped to 50%. The drop in circumcision rates was caused mostly by American Millennial parents using the internet to understand circumcision and foreskin function.

            Foregen was founded by Vincenzo Aiello after he was circumcised as an adult in Italy for medical reasons. From his HuFo video on Foregen’s website, I do not think taking foreskin from live adults is part of his, Foregen’s ethics. Of course, Foregen has a contact page that can be used to ask these very good questions for clarification.

          2. Americans still circumcise around 50% of their sons. This number has fallen from what it was in the past, but it’s still a fair amount. In other countries, apart from Jews and Muslims, people tend to leave their babies’ dicks in one piece.

            I would guess this leaves Europeans because, again just a guess, many of their intended patients will be white. And therefore if they’re gonna attach skin to the end of their dicks, they’d prefer it to be white skin. The alternative would be very unnerving! And, another guess, perhaps skin pigments persist through whichever process, so it’s easier to start off with white skinned non-Americans, or Europeans as we’re also known.

            The exact opposite of this process, almost completely so, is harvesting baby foreskins after infant circumcision. Because babies’ bodies are still growing vigourously, their skin cells grow very well in culture. One foreskin can give something like 4 acres of cultivated skin, used for burn victims etc. Even if the skin doesn’t become part of the recipient’s skin permanently, it releases some sort of growth factors or the like, that encourages their own skin to recover more quickly.

            Fortunately performing unnecessary surgery on infants, who of course cannot give permission, is falling away as a habit. The doctors who charge parents for this operation, and the biotech companies who make huge profits selling the resulting skin, will have to find some other way of exploiting those in their care.

          3. @Greenaum:
            The decelluarization process should eliminate skin pigments as skin pigment is caused by melanin. I do not think melanin is part of the extracellular matrix.
            And yes, infant (neonata)l tissue contains cells called Fibroblasts that are worth cosmetic companies and laboratories lots of money. Neonatal tissue extracted from foreskin can be purchased from Invitrogen around $350 to $500 per vial. Check out product codes C0205C, C0045C, C2025C, C0015C. Apligraf uses the tissue as well as Valveta (Interctex) for around $1000/vial

          1. I’m guessing I may just have given Robert nightmares about Lovecraftian meatcraft.

            It would probably be easier to repopulate the broccoli with cells harvested out of a peppermint to see if mint will really grow anywhere.

    1. Well, in theory it would be very possible to grow a broccoli-shaped “steak”. It will be muscle tissue, but will have almost no flavour at all given there will be not fatty deposits within the structure The fat deposits are what give the meat flavour, so without it it will be very bland. It’s the biggest issue that factory-grown meat faces

    2. The amount of time meat hangs around before it’s considered edible, you’ve no chance short of waiting for a Dawn Of The Dead / Animal Farm crossover. But of course there’s plenty of sources of living animal cells. You can treat farm animals pretty much like shit, especially chickens, so nobody would stop you. If you really wanted to be sure, just kill it first, then it’s all yours.

      Growth medium, I dunno. Liquidise a chicken?

  1. Weird stuff. History channel really isn’t a good source, 90%+ of their material is completely false. Need to research further….

    BTW, a human heart on display is macob, not squemish, and the sign of a demented mind.

    1. The History Channel video isn’t where I started my search. Andrew Pelling has lots of coverage when it comes to this. To your point, the video was sensationalized.
      No one wants to decellularize a HUMAN heart just to add a blacklight. At least, I hope not. That would be macabre. A heart is a very recognizable form though. For my tastes, the broccoli looks way cooler anyway and I would be happy to have that on my shelf. What would you put on your shelf?

        1. @Mel_Vixen, I always felt that the biohacking and transexual communities have a shared goal of making our bodies what we want, rather than what we’re dealt. We are on completely different scales so I have a lot of admiration for the dedication it takes to transition.

          1. Thanks man. I always though of transitioning as my personal biobacking project.
            I also admire tons of the biohacking stuff, plants, implants, modiefied bacterias all cool stuff i wish i could try at home and not just for some homegrown estro and prolactin.

            And one of my roomies is into cyborgs so we often think on how we can do certain stuff to augment her (without surgeries and stuff)

          1. Actualy there are Fertile XY females (its very rare) because you can have fully Testoresitant people AND people where the Y chromosome is inactive. BUT there are enough people that get theyr internals removed so you could do a transplant of a repopulated cellular matrix IF you get the stemcells to do the right stuff.

            I would donate my (stem)cells IF someone would have the expertise to try this and grow me some Ovaries, uterus and /or eggcels.

    2. It’s spelled “macabre”. Americans generally are a bit unsubtle pronouncing French words, and in French half the alphabet is silent, so it’s a common mistake to make.

      I wouldn’t say it’s the sign of a “demented mind”, or even that there is such a thing. It’s a bit unsubtle for a scientific term.

  2. fortunately i have no problems watching the videos but some of you may be sensitive to the videos so viewer discretion is advised as they do work on body parts like a heart

  3. I hope everyone understands this decellularization and tissue regeneration signifies much more than crafting earlobes from apples. Imagine the positive benefits of this technology; a world where no human being must die in order for another to live. Need a lung? Regenerate it. Need new kidneys? Regenerate them. No need to wait for another human being to die who may possible be a match. This means it could be possible that there is no medical incentive for a human being to die in order for another to live. There could be no question as to why an individual was not resuscitated after a car accident, or brain trauma so as to harvest organs for transplant.

    However, if a legitimate stream of tissue, organs exists ethical hazards are raised. How would human beings acquire extracellular matrices to regenerate tissue? For example, if a pig’s heart is decellularized and then regenerated with human adult heart stem cells, then is it truly a human heart? Is there an ethical way to synthesize human tissue and organ extracellular matrices?

    Even if it is possible to do so, then it could also be possible that unethical individuals may harvest human organs or create bogus ones under the guise of legitimate tissue. How could that be stopped if it were to happen?

    I think we makers can figure something out. Remember that regardless of who we are, maker, geek, transgender, man, woman, American, Eurpoean, African, Asian we are one people of this world and that’s why we need to understand this technology so as to benefit all humanity.

    See these links for example:

    http://bgr.com/2018/02/08/skingun-stem-cell-treatment-burn-victims/

    Cheers!

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