Heart of Popeye: Scientist uses spinach to make artificial heart

Leah Taylor, Staff Writer

Extraordinary advances are constantly being made in the medical field around the world.  One recent area of study for these researchers has been the uses of plant matter in reconstructive medicine.  Using plant-like scaffolding, researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts were able to create a model of a working, beating human heart.  Scientists tested the ability of a decellularized spinach leaf to filter blood through tissue using red dye.  This test was successful, since the dye was pumped through the leaf’s veins, which simulated the blood, oxygen, and nutrients that a human heart tissue needs.

This study, which was published earlier this month in Biomaterials, a scientific journal, can potentially lead to long term solutions to repair damaged organs.  It provides scientists with a new method of growing a vascular system.  They are able to create large-scale human tissue in labs through 3D printing techniques, but the highly specialized, small, fragile blood vessels, which are vital to tissue health, are much more difficult to grow and as of now require a natural base.

“The main limiting factor for tissue engineering… is the lack of a vascular network. Without that vascular network, you get a lot of tissue death,” said WPI graduate student and researcher Joshua Gershlak.

The branching network of thin veins in leaves are known to deliver water and nutrients to the rest of the plant cells.  Plant veins such as these have been proposed as potential replacements for human blood vessel networks.  In this study, the researchers modified the spinach leaf and removed the plant cells, leaving behind a frame of cellulose.  In the end, they were able to successfully use it for a model human heart.  Cellulose is an extremely widespread material with an almost endless variety of uses, from medicines and cosmetic procedures to printer paper and textiles.

“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,” according to the authors of the paper.

The rest of the plant frame was bathed in live human cells.  Human tissue grew on the spinach scaffolding and surrounded the network of veins.  After the transformation into the “mini-heart,” scientists sent fluids and micro-beads through the veins that represent nutrients, oxygen, water, etc.

The goal of this research is to eventually replace damaged tissue in patients who have had heart attacks or who have suffered from other cardiac issues that prevent the contraction of their hearts.  The modified leaf would act as blood vessels by delivering oxygen to all of the replacement tissue in order to generate new heart matter.

Soon, scientists hope to use different types of plants in order to repair tissue in other parts of the human body.  For example, wood cells could be used to fix human bones, just as the spinach cells in this scenario are used to replicate the human cardiovascular system.

“We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising.  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,” said co-author Glenn Gaudette in a press statement.

By using a spinach leaf frame of cellulose, scientists have been able to replicate a mini, beating human heart.  This could be incredibly significant, as more specialized, small vascular tissue has not been able to be 3D printed thus far. Eventually, this research could be used to replace damaged tissue in patients with cardiac issues, and other plants could also be used to replace damaged tissue in other systems.  This study is groundbreaking in the medical field and opens many doors to further research the fruits of which only time will tell.