A major challenge for bioengineers is the recreation and regeneration of human tissues and organs. Techniques such as 3D printing advances research in a certain way, but still, it cannot recreate the complexities of the human body especially when it comes to the intricate design of the human vascular system. Now, scientists are closer to success with the help of a humble gift from nature — a spinach leaf.
Turning To Nature
A research team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Arkansas State University-Jonesboro, and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute turned to nature in hopes of solving the old problem of recreating and regenerating the complex process of blood circulation that's essential for proper tissue growth and development.
Though plants and animals adopt different measures of transporting necessary fluids to sustain life, there are striking similarities that, in this case, the researchers successfully utilized.
Using the humble spinach leaf, the team successfully cultured beating human heart cells onto a leaf that's been stripped of its own plant cells. The results are incredible, as the human blood cells flowed perfectly along the spinach leaf's veins just as they would on human veins.
Apart from spinach leaves, researchers also successfully performed the experiment on parsley, sweet wormwood, and peanut hairy roots. Armed with the success of their experiment that has already been published in advance of the Biomaterials May 2017 issue, researchers hope that their findings will aid in treating heart attack patients by layering their damaged tissue with healthy heart muscles cultured from plant leaves.
The researchers began the process by stripping the leaf of its own plant cells through decellularization. The resulting frame, which has become almost transparent, is composed of cellulose, which is a biocompatible material that is not harmful to humans. The cellulose frame is then bathed in human cells that grow and form the plant frame into a small, heart-like structure.
At that point, the team injected the new heart with microbeads and fluids similar in size to blood cells and observed how the fluids flowed through the spinach leaf's veins.
Though the researchers say that they still have a long way to go, they believe that this is a promising advancement in bioengineering and attribute their success to the interdisciplinary composition of their team that includes biomedical engineers, plant biologists, and human stem cell and plant biology researchers.
"When you have people with different expertise coming at a problem from different perspectives, novel solutions can emerge," said Glenn Gaudette, PhD, coauthor of the paper.