Popeye was fond of cramming cans of spinach to beef up his cartoon biceps. Now scientists say the leafy green really could help build a real-world muscle, only this time, it's the human heart.
A team of US researchers found a way to use the veins of the spinach leaf to build a miniature version of a beating heart muscle.
Their discoveries offer a potential solution a major challenge confronting biomedical engineers: how to repair and regenerate damaged organs and tissues.
If proven to work, scientists could use the spinach treatment to grow layers of healthy heart muscle to treat heart attack patients, the group said in a proof-of-concept study published this month in the journal Biomaterials.
Existing bioengineering techniques, including 3-D printing, can't fabricate the branching network of blood vessels down to the capillary scale.
That tiny scaffolding is key to delivering the oxygen, nutrients and essential molecules tissues need to properly grow, said Joshua Gershlak, a study co-author and graduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts.
"The major limiting factor for tissue engineering ... is the lack of a vascular network," Gershlak said in a video describing the study.
"Without that vascular network, you get a lot of tissue death."
In a series of experiments, the team took single spinach leaves and flowed a detergent solution through the veins to remove all the plant cells.
"What we're left with is the structure that keeps those cells in place," Glenn Gaudette, professor of biomedical engineering at WPI and corresponding author of the paper, said in the video.
Next, they flowed fluids and microbeads similar in size to human blood cells through the spinach's veiny network.
Then they "seeded" the spinach veins with human cells that line blood vessels.
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