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Medical Miracles: Making Beating Hearts Out Of Spinach Leaves

First Posted: Mar 28, 2017 04:39 AM EDT
Spinach Leaves Can Carry Blood To Grow Human Tissues
WPI research team shows spinach leaves stripped of plant cells can become a vascular network to deliver blood, oxygen and nutrients to grow human tissues like cardiac muscle to treat heart attack patients.
(Photo : WPI/YouTube screenshot)

Popeye the Sailor Man may consume spinach to gain a lot of strength, but it seems the green, leafy vegetable makes beating hearts, not inflating biceps. No, it would not make the heart grow three sizes bigger, like Christmas did to the Grinch, but this new revelation is good news for heart transplant patients.

According to The Washington Post, spinach leaves can grow a network of veins that can thread through leaves the same way blood vessels thread through human hearts. These veins allowed researchers to give meaning to the term "heart-healthy" -- at least, as far as spinach is concerned.

The study published in the journal Biomaterials noted that the tissue engineers stripped green spinach leaves of their cells, which turned the vegetables translucent. They then seeded the gaps of the plant's cells with human heart tissue. In this unusual environment, the heart cells somehow managed to beat for up to three weeks.

Study co-author Joshua Gershlak from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts said that the limiting factor for engineering tissues has been the lack of vascular network. Without it, tissues die.

However, the spinach leaves branch its network of thin veins and deliver water and nutrients to the cells. With some modifications, scientists were able to use the spinach veins to replicate the way blood can move through the human tissue. By removing the plant cells, the spinach leaves left behind a frame of cellulose -- the same biocompatible element that has been used in vast areas of regenerative medicine. Some uses of this technique include cartilage tissue engineering, bone tissue engineering and wound healing.

Once the team managed to transform the spinach leaf into a mini heart, fluids and microbeads were sent through its veins to show how blood cells could flow through this system. Further tests and studies could help perfect the process and improve cardiology patients in the next few years.

National Geographic noted that the goal of the experiment is for medical technology to be able to replace damaged tissue in patients with heart problems. These include heart attacks and other coronary artery diseases.

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