A Heart of Spinach?

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The wait for a heart transplant can be excruciatingly long. People die waiting for a donor heart, which becomes available only when someone healthy, who has agreed to donate, passes away. Scientists have been working to develop an artificial heart or heart muscle tissue to prolong the life of people suffering from heart disease until they can get a transplant.

In a paper recently published in the scientific journal Biomaterials, scientists from Polytechnic Institute of Worchester, Massachusetts publicized a medical breakthrough – heart muscle tissue grown in spinach leaves.

Why spinach? The biggest challenge scientists faced until now was growing the tiny tubes for blood vessels in the system that provides blood to the heart tissue. “The most limiting factor preventing the engineering of tissue is the lack of a blood vessel network,” says Joshua Gershlak, one of the authors of the report. “Without such a network the tissue simply dies.”

This is where spinach comes in. Spinach leaves have a network of fine tubes that deliver water and minerals to all the cells in the leaf. The researchers experimented using that network to carry blood to the heart cells. How did they do it? They removed the spinach cells from those fine tubes and were left with a rigid frame of cellulose. Cellulose is skeletal plant matter that works in tandem with the tissue being grown. Cellulose has worked successfully with growing cartilage and bone tissue and with healing wounds.

Researchers placed live human heart cells into the framework of the spinach leaf. This enabled  the tissue to grow using the structure of the leaf for support, and when the tissue reached the stage of a mini heart the researchers introduced blood into the network of the structure to see if the blood would circulate throughout the heart and enable it to live and thrive. These experiments were successful!

This research is still in its infant stages, but researchers say their goal is to replace damaged heart tissue with healthy tissue grown in spinach leaves. Thanks to the tube system of the leaf, these tissues can circulate blood and oxygen to all the cells and help heart patients to recover.

“There’s still much to do but it looks very promising,” says Glen Godet a member of the research team. “Matching up common plants that we have had for thousands of years and using them to engineer the growth of tissue can solve a lot of the problems that presently limit this field.”