It is probably cliché to say that science never ceases to amaze, but this is truly one of those times for me. Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Arkansas State University-Jonesboro, released a paper called “Crossing kingdoms: Using decellularized plants as perfusable tissue engineering scaffolds” in the journal of Biomaterials.
In this research, the spinach leaf’s cellulose structure (after the plants have been stripped of their cells) can be used as a biocompatible scaffold to grow tissue on, with the leafs vascular tissue creating a system that could carry blood. Researchers seeded the vascular system of the plant with human cells to line the vascular structure, and then cultivated human heart tissue on the surface of the leaf. Using an artificial blood, the heart tissue was able to contract and move the simulated blood through the plant’s vascular system.
Current techniques for engineering tissue can’t recreate microvascular structures in the tissue. Without that structure, a graft of engineered tissue couldn’t survive due to the lack of oxygen and nutrients. Engineered tissues can help improve damaged tissue, or one day whole organs, build bio-sensors, used in research and drug testing. Our current ability to engineer artificial tissue is limited by the difficulty in reproducing a working vascular system.
For those interested, Wikipedia has a nice rundown of the current and research assembly methods that is worth a read.
By exploiting the benign chemistry of plant tissue scaffolds, 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. By combining environmentally friendly plant tissue with perfusion-based decellularization, we have shown that there can be a sustainable solution for pre-vascularized tissue engineering scaffolds.
It’s a proof of concept that potentially offer a way to build up layers of functional heart tissue. Being able to adapt a widely available material like plant tissue, to provide the scaffolding for tissue engineering, is exciting and beautiful.