You’ve been told time and again that leafy green veggies do wonders for your body. Spinach, specifically, is revered as a god-send that boosts your heart health and keeps your organs nourished. But scientists are working on using spinach leaves for the heart in a way you could never have imagined.
The brilliant minds at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are pioneering this study. Through several experiments, they have managed to grow to beat human heart cells on spinach leaves, replicating the vascular system of the heart in a plant. They were surprised to find that a long-standing issue in the treatment of heart problems was about to be solved through such a simple plant.
Why are plants a good choice for replicating heart tissue?
Current bioengineering techniques have been unable to replicate the branching of the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients through the heart. In an effort to battle this issue, researchers turned to plants. While plants and animals are fundamentally different in their circulating systems, there are some striking similarities in their vascular network structure. That is to say, if you compare the network of veins in a spinach leaf and in a human heart, you’ll find them similar. We already know how much mimicry exists in nature, and this is a part of it.
Plant biology and human stem cell researchers have come together in exploring all the ways that plants can be used for tissue engineering. For instance, the team at WPI has also successfully decellularized parsley, Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood), jewelweed, and peanut hairy roots. Where the spinach leaf was more suited for a highly complex cardiac tissue, other plants might come into use in bone engineering, arterial grafts, and so on.
How was the theory tested?
I’m sure you are extremely curious to know just how a leaf can resemble our heart, right? Well, the first step was to remove the existing plant cells from the leaf. This was done by flowing a detergent solution through the leaf’s veins, after which only a transparent framework made of cellulose, which is biocompatible, was left. Human heart cells were then cultured upon the leaf. The final step was to flow fluids and microbeads similar to blood and blood cells through the spinach leaf’s vasculature, which became clearly outlined in this proof-of-concept study. This experiment has now opened the doors to layering multiple cultured spinach leaves to create healthy heart muscle which would be phenomenal in treating heart attack patients.
What are the applied benefits of this discovery?
It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? In the research into and treatment of the intricate heart, one challenge has been very troubling- while scientists have been able to grow large-scale tissues in their labs through 3D printing, they have been stuck at creating a small, complex vascular system that can carry blood deep into the developing tissue; any mistakes and tissue death will result. But the possibility of the spinach leaf could deal with this, along with other environmental and economic problems.
This very promising project revealed that using plants that can be abundantly and easily grown by farmers with good agricultural practices and under controlled environments could be the boon that humans needed. The environmental degradation and expenses that make up synthetic materials could be avoided, and plant-tissue scaffolds are life-saving, sustainable solutions that would revolutionize tissue engineering sciences.
Watch this video to hear directly from the project team working on this innovation-
I guess it makes sense to include a lot of spinach leaves in our diet now, huh?