Scientists Grow Human Heart Cells in Spinach Leaves


Don't let that headline give you any crazy ideas: this isn’t about some kind of horror-inspired Frankensalad. Scientists are simply capitalizing on plants’ robust natural vein structure, which may someday let them grow human heart tissue for transplant. The researchers published their findings online in the journal Biomaterials.

The organ transplant process in use today needs some serious improvement. We need more organs and tissue than we have, and patients who do get transplants face a lifetime of immune system–suppressing drugs and the risk that their bodies might reject the new organ. So scientists around the world have been brainstorming ways to fill organ- and tissue-shaped scaffolding with patients’ own cells.

Some groups have turned to 3D printing to build the scaffolding, while others see a future in recycling existing organs.

And then there are the plant people. The new paper’s first author, Joshua Gershlak, is a biomedical engineer at Massachusetts' Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He had done scaffolding experiments before, perfusing, or filling, the cellular skeletons of human hearts with new cells. The light-bulb moment came for him when he noticed a familiar structure in the green leaves on his plate.

“When I looked at the spinach leaf,” he said in a statement, “its stem reminded me of an aorta. So I thought, let’s perfuse right through the stem.”

Gershlak and his colleagues used chemical detergents to rinse away most of the spinach’s plant matter, leaving behind a translucent scaffold. Then they pumped cell-like fluids and microbeads through the ghostly veins and perfused them with human endothelial cells. The cells took to their new home and began growing.

Next steps will include trying the same process in other common crops.

Corresponding author Glen Gaudette of WPI says his team’s findings are “... 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.”

All images courtesy of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.