US scientists have managed to transform spinach leaves into functional beating heart tissues with their own vascular networks, possibly opening up a new branch of tissue engineering science based on plant mimicry.

The scientific field of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine emerged in the last decade as an answer to the overwhelming need for tissue and organ replacement and is the lack of material from human donors. It uses innovative approaches for constructing functional tissues in vitro, like seeding” stem cells on scaffolds made of various biomaterials, xenotransplantation, and even 3D bioprinting. However, one of its latest and most promising approaches utilizes decellularized mammalian tissues and organs in hopes of reconstructing them for human use. Turns out same could be done using plants.

Researchers from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) managed to decellularize a simple spinach leaf and turn it into fully functional, beating human heart tissue. The spinach leaf´s matrix closely mimics the vascular network surrounding the heart, making it an ideal environment for seeding cardiac cells.

“The main limiting factor for tissue engineering and grafting getting into the clinic the lack of a vascular network” said study co-author Josuha Gershlak, adding ”Without that vascular network, you get a lot of tissue death.”

The group adhered human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) and pluripotent stem cell derived cardiomyocytes to the spinach leaf´s matrix and perfused them with blood using the plant´s own vascular network, which resulted in functional contractile heart tissue over a course of 21 days. They hope to adapt their new approach for applications on a larger scale, possibly allowing scientists to construct larger tissues or functional organ parts from abundant plant material such as leaves. They published their study in Biomaterials.

“We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising. 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” concluded professor Glenn Gaudette.

Learn more about the breakthrough in the video report below:

By Luka Zupančič, MSc, University of Applied Sciences Technikum Vienna