Organ donation is a noble thing—and an important one—but these traits do not make it easy to find a replacement heart when there is great need. As demand outpaces supply, then, scientists have turned to artificial organs—in this case, hearts—to keep up. And with current 3D printing technology, our capabilities are improving; though we are not quite able to print the perfect human heart.
To meet the demand, scientists have tried to create artificial organs through innovations such as 3D-printing tissue. So far, however, no one has been able to print a perfect heart. As such, engineers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, continue to look for remedies. Bioengineer Glenn Gaudette, for example, explains, “One of the big problems in engineering heart muscle is getting blood flow to all of the cells.” The WPI professor of biomedical engineering goes on to say, “Heart muscle is pretty thick.”
Essentially, our current technology is not able to construct tissue that is dense enough to replace a damaged heart while also allowing tiny blood vessels to transport oxygen. But while we are having issues solving this human problem, the team is looking to nature for possible solutions: and they may have found a new path through the vascular system of plants.
Apparently, the team stripped spinach leaves of their cells, which leaves (no pun intended) us with a translucent cellulose sheet with a built-in vascular system. Supplanting (again, no pun intended) human heart cells into the spinach leaves resulted in the human tissue beating for as long as three weeks.
In their research paper, the study authors assure “Cellulose is biocompatible [and] has been used in a wide variety of regenerative medicine applications, such as cartilage tissue engineering, bone tissue engineering, and wound healing.”
As such, the study team now says they can use the same method with various plant types in order to repair a wider variety of human tissue. In fact, they theorize that we may be able to, one day, swap out wood for bone.
Gaudette continues, “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.”