The United States faces an organ donor shortage. More than 100,000 people are on the national transplant waiting list, but due to unavailability of suitable organs, nearly two dozen of them die every day.

Results of a new experiment, however, could pave way for solutions that can eventually help alleviate the shortage of donated organs.

Turning Spinach Leaves Into Tiny Human Heart Tissue

Researchers from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts have successfully converted a spinach leaf into a tiny beating human heart muscle.

The experiment, which was described in a study to be published in the May 2017 issue of the journal Biomaterials, involved swapping the plant cells of the leaf for human ones, essentially transforming the plant veins into a blood vessel network.

Although it was only a proof-of-concept work, researchers said that their study could serve as a foundation for stitching spinach leaves veins to human blood vessels.

Hope For Patients With Damaged Heart Tissues

The experiment may pave way for breakthroughs that can be useful for those who have damaged heart tissues that are no longer contracting, something that may happen after a person suffers from heart attack.

The study could potentially lead to biomedical solutions that can help repair damaged organs. Researchers said they envision implanting a graft into a damaged heart tissue.

The human tissue made of spinach leaves may help restore blood flow to areas of the heart that have been damaged by trauma, disease, and infection. The plant-made tissue may work like a sort of patch that gets surgically implanted into a person's heart.

"These data demonstrate the potential of decellularized plants as scaffolds for tissue engineering, which could ultimately provide a cost-efficient, 'green' technology for regenerating large volume vascularized tissue mass," researchers wrote in their study.

Current Hurdles

Researchers, though, still have to overcome a number of challenges. For one, they need to make sure that plant scaffolds such as the one that they created would not be rejected once already inside the body of the human host.

The leaves of the spinach are also delicate, so researchers need to make stronger hybrids of the heart spinach. The researchers also acknowledged that at the moment, it is unclear how plant vasculature can be integrated to those of humans and whether or not there would be an immune response.

Despite this, the researchers believe that the scaffold they developed can help treat patients, and while there are still a lot more work needed to make this possible, the results are so far promising.

"To be able to just take something as simple as a spinach leaf, which is an abundant plant, and actually turn that into a tissue that has the potential for blood to flow through it, is really very very exciting, and we hope it's going to be a significant advancement in the field," said study researcher Glenn Gaudette from the WPI.

Besides spinach, researchers may also use other plants such as broccoli and cauliflower, which have three-dimensional structure comparable to those of the lungs.

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