Scientists Have Turned Spinach Into Beating Human Heart Tissue

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have successfully grown beating human heart cells on spinach leaves — a first step toward developing a plant-based patch surgeons could use to repair damage to your heart caused by a heart attack
  • Spinach leaves were selected for use in this research because they contain a well-developed vascular network that could assist with blood and oxygen transport inside the human body
  • Adopting specific lifestyle changes, such as avoiding smoking, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, has been shown to reduce 80 percent of heart attacks in men and 70 percent in women

By Dr. Mercola

Packed with nutrients but low in calories, spinach is a healthy addition to salads, smoothies and vegetable juice. Similar to other dark-green leafy vegetables, spinach is packed with vitamins A, B2, B6, C, E and K, as well as calcium, folate, iron, magnesium and manganese.

Studies have shown spinach supports your cardiovascular health, eyesight and immune system, as well as numerous other bodily functions. While it's long been known the magnesium in spinach can help lower your blood pressure, thereby benefiting your cardiovascular health, until recently, scientists may have vastly underestimated the benefits of spinach to your heart.

In surprising new research, scientists have successfully grown beating human-heart cells on decellularized spinach leaves. This work represents a first step toward potentially developing a plant-based patch surgeons could one day use to help repair damage caused by a heart attack. As unusual as this research sounds, spinach leaves contain one of the key ingredients to assist with blood and oxygen transport in the human body: a well-developed vascular network.

Are Spinach Leaves a Possible Solution to the Lack of Donor Organs?

While you may not have given much thought to the similarities between the physical properties of a spinach leaf and your heart, researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have made a careful study1 of both as a means of addressing a lack of donor organs in the U.S.

They have taken a particular interest in the naturally occurring "veins" on spinach leaves, which mirror the pattern of blood vessels threading through your heart. The goal is to one day use spinach and/or other plant-based materials to repair your heart after a heart attack.

As strange as this body of work may seem, WPI scientists are encouraged by their early findings. They are taking bold steps toward one day using the well-developed vascular network found on spinach leaves to deliver blood, oxygen and nutrients inside the human body.

According to The Washington Post, the inspiration for using spinach leaves occurred over a lunch discussion about organ donation involving Glenn Gaudette, Ph.D., WPI professor of biomedical engineering, and Joshua Gershlak, a WPI doctoral student in biomedical engineering:2

"The inspiration for the human-plant fusion came over lunch — and, yes, the leafy greens were involved — when WPI bioengineers … began to brainstorm new ways to tackle a deadly medical problem: the lack of donor organs.

Of the more than 100,000 people on the donor list, nearly two dozen people die each day while waiting for an organ transplant. To meet the demand, scientists have tried to create artificial organs through innovations such as 3-D-printing tissue. So far, however, no one has been able to print a perfect heart."

Researchers Grow Beating Human Heart Cells on Spinach Leaves

To date, it has been a challenge for scientists to create tissue dense enough to replace a damaged heart, especially due to the complex network of tiny blood vessels needed for oxygen delivery. "One of the big problems in engineering heart muscle is getting blood flow to all of the cells," said Gaudette. "Heart muscle is pretty thick."3

The team began by stripping spinach down to the fine cellulose structure that holds each leaf together. This process, called decellularization, causes the leaves to lose their dark-green color and become translucent. "I had done decellularization work on human hearts before, and when I looked at the spinach leaf its stem reminded me of an aorta," noted Gershlak.4

According to ScienceAlert,5 cellulose from plants is a great material to use in lab-grown samples because it has been well studied and is compatible with living tissue. It is also inexpensive and readily available. In fact, researchers purchased the spinach used for this study at a local market.

After decellularization, scientists seeded human heart tissue into the gaps left behind by the plant cells. Amazingly, after five days, clusters of heart cells sown on the spinach leaves began to beat, and continued to do so for up to three weeks.

The team was also able to pump fluids and microbeads into the structure to prove blood cells could flow through the system.6 "The main limiting factor for tissue engineering … is the lack of a vascular network," said Gershlak. "Without that vascular network, you get a lot of tissue death."7

As such, this spinach-based science could be a game changer for cardiac patients who suffer damage to their heart muscle. Once perfected, altered plant veins could be used as replacement blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the damaged tissue.

What's Next for Spinach-Heart Research?

As part of their published results, the WPI research team suggested:8

"The development of decellularized plants for scaffolding opens up the potential for a new branch of science that investigates the mimicry between kingdoms (e.g., between plant and animal). Although further investigation is needed to understand future applications of this new technology, we believe it has the potential to develop into a 'green' solution pertinent to a myriad of regenerative-medicine applications."

The WPI team believes it is the first to attempt to repurpose plant veins, work scientists hope will be expanded in the future to allow for stitching the veins of spinach leaves onto human blood vessels. "Long term, we're definitely envisioning implanting a graft in damaged heart tissue," Gaudette told the Post.9

Significant next steps in the research include the need to strengthen the spinach-heart materials and create a thickness similar to the human heart wall. Gershlak said, "[W]e should be able to potentially stack up multiple leaves and create a piece of cardiac tissue."10 Additionally, researchers must ensure the plant-based materials would be accepted once they are implanted inside the host. It's possible the use of plant-based materials inside the human body could cause a negative immune system response.

While the team is still determining how to effectively integrate spinach leaves with living human heart tissue, the need for heart tissue transplants continues to inspire their work. As noted by Gaudette in ScienceAlert:11

"We really believe this scaffold has the capability to help treat patients. We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising. To be able to 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 exciting. We hope it's going to be a significant advancement in the field."

The Future of Plant-Based Tissue and Organ Research

Notably, the research at WPI is not the only instance in which human tissue has been successfully transferred onto a plant-based structure. According to The Atlantic,12 "[T]he fusion of plant and animal … holds promise for regenerative medicine, in which defective body parts may be replaced by engineered alternatives."

Previously, a team of scientists at the University of Ottawa stripped an apple of its plant cells and added cervical tissue. "Biohacking is the new gardening," says Andrew Pelling, Ph.D., director of the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa.13

Working with plants gives scientists virtually unlimited options at their ready disposal. According to ScienceAlert,14 to date, beyond their work with spinach, WPI researchers have successfully stripped plant cells from parsley, peanut hairy roots and a species of wormwood.

For a Healthy Heart, Eliminate Processed Goods and Eat Real Food

While plant-based research seems promising, it will take several years to determine the effectiveness of spinach as a source of regenerative heart tissue. In the meantime, your best option for dealing with cardiovascular issues is to adopt a lifestyle focused on safeguarding your heart from being damaged in the first place.

One of the fastest ways to improve your cardiac health is to eliminate processed foods, which contain antinutrients that are detrimental to your well-being, including artificial colors and flavors, chemical preservatives, processed vegetable oils and sugar, to name a few.

Replace all processed foods in your diet with whole foods — preferably organic. Eat food in a form as close to how it exists in nature. Focus on healthy proteins, fats and vegetables. Limit your fruit consumption to less than 25 grams of fructose per day if you are healthy, or less than 15 grams per day if you are battling chronic disease. Below are some of the most important ingredients in a heart-friendly diet.

Antioxidant polyphenols found in richly colored vegetables and fruits, especially berries

B vitamins, especially folate and B12

Calcium, magnesium and vitamins D3 and K2. You were designed to get your vitamin D from the sun, but if you are not able to get all the necessary sun exposure, your next best option is an oral D3 supplement taken with K2 and magnesium

CoQ10, but if you're over 40, I recommend using the reduced version, ubiquinol

Fermented foods not only boost your overall immunity through optimizing your intestinal microflora, but also introduce beneficial bacteria into your mouth — good oral health helps reduce your heart disease risk

Healthy fats like avocados, coconut oil, grass fed meat, olive oil (cold only), raw dairy products from grass fed cows, and raw nuts such as macadamia or pecan

Marine-based omega-3 fats, found in fatty, cold-water fish such as anchovies, sardines and wild Alaskan salmon, as well as krill oil

Controllable Factors Affecting Your Risk of Having a Heart Attack

If you want to reduce your risk of having a heart attack, it's vitally important you pay attention to several additional factors beyond a healthy diet. The wonderful news is all of these areas are generally 100 percent controllable by you. You should feel encouraged to know you personally possess the power to change your lifestyle and reduce your risk of heart disease.

Research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology15 found that women who addressed six specific lifestyle areas lowered their heart disease risk by 92 percent. Based on tracking 88,940 women aged 27 to 44 years from 1991 to 2011, researchers estimate more than 70 percent of heart attacks could be prevented by taking the following action:

1. Eat a healthy diet

2. Maintain a normal body mass index (BMI) — see my comments below

3. Exercise at least 2.5 hours each week

4. Watch television seven or fewer hours per week

5. Avoid smoking

6. Limit alcohol intake to one drink or less per day

With respect to BMI, I believe your waist-to-hip ratio is a more reliable risk predictor, because it reflects visceral fat. An even more dependable measure would be an accurate assessment of your body-fat percentage.

Notably, the results of this study on women echo conclusions drawn from research conducted in 2014 involving 20,721 men aged 45 to 79 years who were followed for 11 years.16 Researchers concluded that adhering to most of the same health habits could prevent nearly 80 percent of first-time heart attacks in men. Said Agneta Åkesson, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology, Karolinska Institute, and lead researcher for the study:17

"It is not surprising that healthy lifestyle choices would lead to a reduction in heart attacks; what is surprising is how drastically the risk dropped due to these factors. While mortality from heart disease has declined in recent decades, with much of the reduction attributed to medical therapies, prevention through a healthy lifestyle avoids potential side effects of medication and is more cost effective for population-wide reductions in coronary heart disease."

Begin Today to Take Charge of Your Heart Health

While the plant-based research reveals fascinating possibilities for future developments in heart-related tissue repair, you don't want to wait until you have a heart attack to begin taking steps toward optimal health. As you have often heard me say, the best way to treat chronic disease is to do everything you can to prevent it.

In addition to adopting the suggestions noted above, you'll want to check out my new book, "Fat for Fuel," for even more tips to help ensure you don't become a heart-disease statistic. As much as you may enjoy eating spinach, it seems unlikely you would want a patch of it sewn onto your heart.

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