A study published this month in the journal Biomaterials has proven once again that spinach is basically the best superfood to ever exist. A team of scientists from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Arkansas State University-Jonesboro have successfully used spinach leaves to grow human heart tissue.
While 3D printing definitely has a future in the medical sciences, the technology is still too new and does not have the ability to generate the intricate vascular systems a human heart needs in order to pump blood effectively. In simple terms, 3D printers can give you sledgehammers when you need needle points. However, using existing biological material, such as a plant, does provide the intricate vein system required, but trying to grow human tissue inside a plant is basically impossible. The trick is keeping the veins, but getting rid of the plant.
The authors of the paper wrote,
Plants and animals exploit fundamentally different approaches to transporting fluids, chemicals and macromolecules, yet there are surprising similarities in their vascular network structures… The development of decellularized plants for scaffolding opens up the potential for a new branch of science that investigates the mimicry between plant and animal.
So how did the research team keep the intricate vein system needed? Detergent. Using spinach leaves, the team bathed the leafy salad greens in chemical detergents to remove its plant cells, but maintain the cellulose, the fibrous building block of plants. More importantly, cellulose is biocompatible which means that animal cells can build upon it as effectively as plant cells can. Infact, many medical practices already use plant based cellulose in healing wounds and mending cartilage.
Once the leaf’s plant cells were completely removed, all that remained was the cellulose vein structure of the spinach. The team then immersed the ex-spinach into a bath of human cells, and allowed the cells to form around the veins, creating a sort of mini heart. Once the human cells latched onto and successfully grew around the veins of the spinach leaf, the team pumped fluid and microbeads through the vein system to simulate blood flow. As it turns out, the spinach veins handled the concoction perfectly.
While the team admits there is still plenty of work to be done, the use of plant based cellulose in the production of organs, such as hearts, is incredibly efficient, inexpensive, and has almost no environmental impact compared to creating synthetic organs from plastic or other human made materials. The team concludes by explaining that,
By exploiting the benign chemistry of plant tissue scaffolds, we could address the many limitations and high costs of synthetic, complex composite materials. Plants can be easily grown using good agricultural practices and under controlled environments. By combining environmentally friendly plant tissue with perfusion-based decellularization, we have shown that there can be a sustainable solution for pre-vascularized tissue engineering scaffolds.
In other words, your next heart could be a nice leafy green grown by good old Mother Nature. Until then, keep eating your veggies kids, they are better for you than you know.