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No, that title isn’t just clickbait and yes, you did read that correctly. Researchers have indeed managed to find a way to use spinach to build working human heart muscle. Their study was published in May 2017 by the journal Biomaterials.
How can spinach become beating human heart tissue?
You can be forgiven for asking that question. After all, it does sound like the kind of obscure pseudoscience they talk about in B-movies. The researchers used the spinach leaves like scaffolding. Spinach was chosen because one of its most defining features is the branching network of thin veins. Usually, these are used by the plant to deliver nutrients to its cells but scientists repurposed them to replicate the way blood moves through human tissue.
The researchers had to modify the leave to remove its plant cells, leaving behind a thin frame made of cellulose. They then bathed the cellulose frame in live human cells. This allowed the human cells to grow on the spinach scaffolding and surround the network of veins. Once the leaves were formed into a ‘mini heart’, the team of researches fed fluids containing microbeads (roughly the same size as human blood cells) through the veins. This was to show that objects the size of blood cells in a fluid like plasma would be able to navigate the system.
As it says in the paper: “Cellulose is biocompatible [and] has been used in a wide variety of regenerative medicine applications, such as cartilage tissue engineering, bone tissue engineering, and wound healing,”
“The main limiting factor for tissue engineering … is the lack of a vascular network,” says study co-author Joshua Gershlak, a graduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, in a video describing the study. “Without that vascular network, you get a lot of tissue death.
How can this help medicine?
The research has been hailed as potential way to solve the problem, ‘How to effectively repair damaged organs?’. The scientists have said that their goal is to be able to replace damaged tissue in patients who have suffered heart attacks or other cardiac issues that prevent them from contracting. Like regular human blood vessels, the veins of the modified leaves will deliver oxygen to the replace tissue, allowing new heart matter to regenerate around it.
The study team are now looking into different type of plants to repair a variety of human tissues. An example could be swapping out the cells in wood to one day help fix human bones.
“We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising,” study co-author Glenn Gaudette, also of WPI, says in a press statement. “Adapting abundant plants that farmers have been cultivating for thousands of years for use in tissue engineering could solve a host of problems limiting the field.”
What are you views on this type of research?
This is not the first piece research into repairing damaged organs. Another team of scientists have already 3D printed a human tissue in a lab. The 3D print method requires large-scale human tissue printing as it is much harder to grow the small, delicate blood vessel vital to tissue health.
What are your views on this type of research? In your opinion, what plants would work well for which organ? Let us know in the comment box below.