Health & Nutrition

A Heart of Spinach?

The line to get a heart transplant is very long. People die waiting for a donor heart from someone healthy who passed away. Scientists keep trying 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 published this month in the scientific journal called 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 for the hearts own needs. “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 into the picture. Spinach leaves have a network of fine tubes that bring water and minerals to all the cells in the leaf. The researchers thought to use that network to carry blood to the heart cells. How did they do it? They removed the spinach cells and were left with a rigid frame of cellulose. Cellulose is skeletal plant matter that works in tandem with the tissue being grown. It has worked successfully with growing cartilage and bone tissue and healing wounds.

Researchers placed live human heart cells into the framework of the spinach leaf so that the tissue grew using the structure of the leaf for support and when the tissue reached the stage of a mini heart they introduced blood into the network of the structure to see if the blood would circulate throughout the heart and enable it 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 these 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 recover.

“There’s still much to do but it looks very promising,” says Glen Godet one of the research team. “Matching up common plants that we have 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.”


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