A group of scientists was able to convert a spinach leaf into a piece of working human heart tissue. They decellularized a spinach leaf and dyed it to observe if it could function as the human heart at the time of transporting blood, oxygen, and all the essential nutrients needed for life.

The experimentation conducted by this team of scientists from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute could lead to incredible improvements in the transplant field. In the recent years, many medical organizations have started developing several mechanisms like 3D organ printing programs. However, they have not turned out to be that successful, so an alternative is needed as soon as possible.

A group of scientists was able to convert a spinach leaf into a piece of working human heart tissue. Image credit: Shutterstock / 6ABC
A group of scientists was able to convert a spinach leaf into a piece of working human heart tissue. Image credit: Shutterstock / 6ABC

Currently, there are hundreds of thousands of patients on waiting lists for several types of organs, and it’s estimated that 22 persons die each day while waiting for an organ or tissue transplant.

The study was published in the journal Biomaterials, and its primary objective is to offer an alternative when it comes to growing and producing human vascular systems. The thing is that this particular type of tissue has been a roadblock to investigations teams worldwide.

In the last decade, many scientific teams around the globe have been able to recreate human organs and tissue in 3D printing labs, even with amazing results. However, in the blood vessel growing area, this mechanism is not the appropriate as blood vessels are a much more delicate structure.

Until this study, there was not any solution to this problem, but the use of a vegetable seems to be a valid answer at the moment. The team explained that there is a proliferation regarding a bio-inspired approach when it comes to looking for solutions to medical problems.

How is it even possible? 

One of the things that have pushed back all the developments of tissue engineering has to do with the lack of a vascular network, according to the lead author of the study, Joshua Gershlak. If there is no presence of a vascular network, when experimentation is conducted the result comes with a lot of dead tissue, stated Gershlak, who is also a graduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, in a video this Sunday.

In this issue, one of the key features of most leaves is the vascular system that is in charge of delivering water and nutrients in general to all the cells of the organism. This new experimentation focuses on the use of that system but replicating it like it is transporting blood trough the human body instead of water and nutrients through the leaf.

Decellularized spinach leaf. Image credit: WPI / Bostonmagazine.com
Decellularized spinach leaf. Image credit: WPI / Bostonmagazine.com

For the scientists to conduct the experiment, they had to remove all the plant cells that were inside the leaf, the process named decellularization. Then, the organism left is a body made of cellulose that is ready to transport blood efficiently, or in this case, to carry red dye.

“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 authors write in their paper. “After decellularization, plant scaffolds remained patent and able to transport microparticles.”

After the decellularization, the scientist team proceeded to bathe the leaf frame in live human cells for the tissue to grow on the spinach scaffolding and surround the small vessels. After the leaf was some sort of transformed into a human heart tissue, the team supplied it with fluids into the micro veins to show that it was possible for it to transport blood cells through its system.

The study’s meaning for the medical field

One of the goals that the investigators have set when conducting this experimentation is the possible replacement of damaged tissue in heart attack patients or in persons who have cardiac issues that could make harder for the heart to contract naturally. The same way blood vessels act, these veins located in the leaf would deliver the appropriate amount of oxygen needed to the whole area of replaced tissue. This oxygen delivery becomes fundamental when it comes to heart tissue regeneration.

According to the scientific team, the spinach leaf/heart human tissue procedure is not exclusive in any way. They stated that the same mechanisms could be used in different types of plants to support various types of damaged tissues on the human body. They gave as an example that science in the future could swap the cells out of wood and help the organism on the regeneration of bones.

“We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising,” study co-author Glenn Gaudette, also of WPI, says 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.”

Source: National Geographic