- Associated Press - Monday, April 10, 2017

JOBESBORO, Ark. (AP) - Popeye isn’t the only one reaping the benefits of spinach. Arkansas State University researcher Fabricio Medina-Bolivar said spinach may also be used in the future to repair damaged hearts.

The use of spinach to bioengineer human cell tissues is the result of work between scientists at three universities to study human tissue regeneration to treat diseases or traumatic injuries, the Jonesboro Sun (https://bit.ly/2oK7wn6 ) reported.

It began when researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), attempting to reproduce human tissues, particularly heart tissues, had trouble creating a vascular system to deliver blood deep into developing tissue.

They finally turned to nature to find a solution and asked Arkansas State researchers at the Arkansas Biosciences Institute for help. The Jonesboro scientists, known for their plant research, joined the team roughly two years ago.

Taking an interdisciplinary approach, researchers from Arkansas State, WPI and the University of Wisconsin-Madison began discussing whether they could use plants as a scaffold, or platform, to create blood vessels.

“WPI has a way to remove the cells from human tissues. Why don’t we take that approach and use that in plants,” Medina-Bolivar said. “… It worked. So, we were able to remove everything that was inside the roots, or the cells, and then what remains is a scaffold or surface that can be seeded with human cells.

“The beauty of the system is that we can re-create now using the veins that exist in the leaf or the remineralization that you see, for example, in the roots so we can use this as a potential blood vessel that can then be planted in a heart that has been damaged.”

Joshua Gershlak, a WPI graduate student, developed the process for removing plant cells from spinach leaves by streaming a detergent solution through the leaves’ veins.

“I had done decellularization work on human hearts before,” Gershlak said in a news release, “and when I looked at the spinach leaf its stem reminded me of an aorta. So I thought, let’s perfuse right through the stem. We weren’t sure it would work, but it turned out to be pretty easy and replicable.”

The scaffold is a framework made primarily of cellulose, a natural substance that is not harmful to people and has already been used in a wide variety of regenerative medicine applications.

The team has since also successfully removed cells from parsley, sweet wormwood and peanut hairy roots. The technique is hoped to work with other plant species that could be adapted for specialized tissue regeneration studies.

For example, the spinach leaf might be better suited for cardiac tissue, while the jewelweed may be better suited for an arterial graft and the vascular columns of wood for use in bone engineering, according to a paper published on the team’s initial findings.

Medina-Bolivar said these systems could be used to make a patch out of either the leaves or the roots to repair areas of a heart damaged by a heart attack.

“By exploiting the benign chemistry of plant tissue scaffolds,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “we could address the many limitations and high costs of synthetic, complex composite materials. Plants can be easily grown using good agricultural practices and under controlled environments.”

That actually happening is still years away; more work is needed. Medina-Bolivar said they need to find what root systems are most amenable and to study additional ways the systems could be used.

At WPI, Glenn Gaudette, a professor of biomedical engineering, said in a news release that studies continue for ways to optimize the decellularization process and further characterize how various human cell types grow while they are attached to and are potentially nourished by plant-based scaffolds. They are also looking at engineering a secondary vascular network for the outflow of blood and fluids from human tissue.

The continuation of this type of research will take several million dollars with the team working off grants and continuously looking for new funding opportunities.

“We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising,” Gaudette said. “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.”

Medina-Bolivar admits he has already started receiving emails from people who never thought it was possible. He said the beauty of looking in nature for answers is that nature has all types of plants that can be used for different kinds of applications.


Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, https://www.jonesborosun.com

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