Using Spinach Leaves To Regrow Hearts

Biomimicry and bioengineering have lost some of their buzzword luster in design circles, but the IRL applications are still going strong. To continue fighting the shortage of viable organ donations, researchers around the world are experimenting with lab grown options. But some tissues and muscles are harder to synthesize than others. Organs like the heart rely on a dense and extremely tiny network of blood vessels and capillaries to fuel the cells and control muscular contractions. Hearts really don’t work well without blood and oxygen, and after heart attacks or other ailments the original cells are often too atrophied to do the job themselves. Science has pushed tissue production into wild new areas, but fabricating a delicate vessel system is still excruciatingly difficult. So why build one, if you can grow one more easily?

Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have successfully taken spinach leaves from leafy green to starter scaffold for heart tissue in a matter of days. After much reflection on the veiny needs of the human heart, the researchers’ familiar lunch leaves started to look a lot more intriguing. From the aorta-like stem to the miniature veining, leaves share a lot in common with our own bodies. As they put it in their report, “Plants and animals exploit fundamentally different approaches to transporting fluids, chemicals, and macromolecules, yet there are surprising similarities in their vascular network structures.”

Harnessing the durable cellulose framework of common household spinach, the team carefully decellularized leaves with detergent over the course of a week. Stripping away the greenery, they were left with an intact vascular network and supporting tissue. By stacking and integrating layers of this spinach scaffold, they hope to create more dense and powerful cardiac tissue. 

While 3D printing tissue and other cell growth technologies advance alongside, creative repurposing of common organic frameworks stays salient. It’s a heartening reminder to keep eyes peeled for answers all around us.

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