Biomedical engineers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are working on developing a heart patch based on spinach leaves. With its small veins, the structure of the spinach leaf makes it possible to circulate the blood, thus imitating the heart tissue.
To deal with chronic shortages of organs, researchers are working in the laboratory on various tissues that could replace them. But the culture of a group of cells is not the most complicated in itself and these cannot develop without a constant blood supply. It is, however, notoriously very difficult to build a network of small blood vessels that are no more than five to ten micrometers wide. These blood vessels, however, provide the transport of oxygen and essential nutrients that a sample of tissue grown in the laboratory would need to grow and perform its function. And if the solution lay in spinach?
Plants exploit fundamentally different approaches to transporting fluids, chemicals, and macromolecules, but there are surprising similarities in their vascular network structures. Looking at a leaf of spinach, you will indeed observe a brilliant circulation system. These small plant veins are so many « veins » through which the leaf develops. What if these ribs could replace human veins and arteries? Once reunited with human stem cells, spinach leaf veins would indeed be able to replace the muscles of the heart in the event that the original organ is infected or damaged.
» We haven’t tested with blood yet. We added color and inserted tiny particles that represent blood cells. Well these last managed to be diffused by the leaves explains Professor Glenn Gaudette, who participated in the study. Spinach leaves are actually « washed » of their plant cells to retain only the cellulose structure, a material compatible with humans. These structures are then immersed in a bath of living cells in formation. These can then cling to and grow on the leaf structures.
According to the researchers, several heart-sheets could be stacked on top of each other like a “bandage” and then grafted to a diseased heart, which would provide the vascularization necessary for healing. These same researchers do not intend to stop there and are studying the possibility of using other elements of nature for therapeutic purposes. Bamboo could for example be an alternative to a broken or missing bone.