Purging plant cells turns spinach into scaffolding for heart tissue
Dark, leafy vegetables are great for your health, even if don’t eat them. Researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute are looking to use spinach leaves as a way to help heal damaged heart tissue, although not thanks to any of their vitamin A or iron. Instead, the structure of the leaves themselves may be used as a scaffolding for growing new tissue that can later be grafted to damaged hearts, arteries or bones.
Plants and animal cells have some similarities, but overall operate very differently. Even the basics of metabolism, such how carbon dioxide and oxygen are used, illustrate that you can’t add plant cells to an animal organ and expect them to function, much less avoid rejection and destruction by the body’s immune system. So before any piece of spinach can be put near a heart, all the plant cells must be removed in a process called decellularization. Over the course of a week, a specialized detergent can essentially drain a leaf of the plant cells, leaving a translucent, leave-shaped shell made of cellulose. That cellulose is inert enough that it won’t be rejected by animal cells, and can therefore be repurposed as a starting point for building new animal tissue.
Upside of leafy lattices
The primary benefit of using a spinach leaf in this way is the exact shape of the decellularized structure. The fine veins and capillaries you see in a leaf are an excellent proxy for the vascular system found in animal tissue. Once the cellulose is isolated, it can be refilled with the cells that line blood vessels and will pass fluids to the surrounding cells in a way that can’t otherwise be synthesized. For example, while 3D printing is pushing the boundaries of tissue generation, it can’t yet match the delicate, branching network of capillaries that spinach has already mastered.
Once a single leaf is mastered, larger structures like heart muscles would be made of many layers of “leaves” stacked together. Beyond spinach, researchers are looking to other veggies as scaffolding for other types of tissue. Parsley, sweet wormwood and jewelweed are all contenders for future bioengineering projects. Aside from the immediate practicalities mentioned above, plant-based tissue development may also offer economic and environmental benefits thanks to the relatively easy production of these key ingredients.
Source: Heart tissue grown on spinach leaves, Science Daily