In Brief
A new way to create working heart tissue using plants could eventually help us treat heart attack patients or others whose hearts have difficulty contracting.

Researchers from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have transformed a spinach leaf into functional heart tissue. The team’s goal was to recreate human organ tissue down to the fragile vascular networks of blood vessels it can’t survive without. Scientists had previously attempted to 3D print intricate vascular networks without success. This breakthrough could mean that the delicate vascular systems of plants are the key.

To create the heart tissue, the scientists at WPI revealed the leaf’s cellulose frame by stripping away the plant cells. Then, they “seeded” the frame with human cells, causing tissue growth on the frame. Finally, they were able to pump microbeads and fluids through the veins to illustrate the functioning concept.

Repairing Damage, Creating Replacements

Although other scientists have been able to create small-scale artificial samples of human tissue, those samples required integration with existing blood vessels. The large-scale creation of working tissue infused with the vascular vessels critical to tissue health had proven impossible.

Researchers Have Transformed a Spinach Leaf Into Working Heart Tissue
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Because the technique could help people grow layers of stronger, healthier heart muscle, the team suggests that it could eventually be used to treat heart attack patients or others whose hearts have difficulty contracting. The researchers have also experimented with parsley, peanut hairy roots, and sweet wormwood as they believe the technique could make use of different kinds of plants to repair other types of tissues. For example, wood cellulose frames could one day help us repair human bones.

“We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising,” Glenn Gaudette, a professor of biomedical engineering at WPI, told The Telegraph. “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.”