We all know vegetables are good for you. That’s right, your parents weren’t lying to you all those years (about nutrition anyway).
But they probably didn’t think veggies could be beneficial to you in this fashion.
Giving new meaning to the cliché, ‘You are what you eat’, scientists have discovered a method of building working human heart muscle…from spinach greens. They hope to solve the never-ending dilemma of repairing damaged organs, revitalizing them with Popeye-like fortitude.
TISSUE ENGINEERING 101
The study, published in full detail in the journal Biomaterials, illustrates the research team’s method of ‘growing’ a vascular system, which has been a notorious roadblock of the tissue engineering field for years.
Creating sections of human tissue in a lab setting isn’t anything new. Scientists are able to replicate basic tissues with techniques like 3D-printing, but have yet to find a practical way to cultivate the precise, delicate blood vessels that are essential to tissue health.
“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.
“Without that vascular network, you get a lot of tissue death.”
WE CAN’T BE-LEAF IT.
And that’s where spinach leaves, the arch-nemesis of all young children’s dinners, can provide new life to this ambition.
A defining trait of a leaf is its intricate branching network of veins, used to deliver water and nutrients to the leaf’s cells.
The scientists in the study recognized the network could be utilized similarly in transporting blood and nutrients throughout human tissue. So, they employed spinach plant veins to copy blood pathways moving through human tissue. To do so, they first needed to modify the spinach leaves in the lab, removing their plant cells. This left them with a frame constructed of cellulose.
“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 researchers note in the journal.
Once the cellulose frame network was completed, the scientists dosed the plant frame in live human cells; human tissue would grow around this spinach scaffolding, enveloping the tiny vein framework.
The spinach leaves slowly continued to change from there, becoming pseudo mini-hearts. The team added fluids and microbeads in the veins, illustrating that blood cells can indeed pass easily through the plant-vein network.
‘STRONG TO THE FINISH, ‘CAUSE I EATS ME SPINACH’. – POPEYE, SAILORMAN
The long-term hope for this research is to replace damaged tissue in patients who may’ve suffered a heart attack or similar cardiac issue. Just like the real-deal human blood vessels, the veins in the spinach mini hearts would carry fresh oxygen throughout any replacement tissue. A consistent supply of oxygen and nutrients is vital in engineering new heart material.
Now we know what you’re thinking – what if we run out of spinach?
Well, that’s unlikely, but in the event the denounced vegetable becomes more popular than the avocado, the scientists say the same methods can be applied to different plant types. In fact, different plants may offer advantages to particular areas of the body. For example, replacing the cells in wood could one day assist in fixing broken human bones, the researchers suggest.
“We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising,” study co-author Glenn Gaudette, also from WPI, said 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.”
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