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"New Spin" -- The Discovery Files

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Researchers turn to the vascular system of plants to solve a major bioengineering problem blocking the regeneration of human tissues and organs. Current bioengineering techniques, including 3-D printing, can't fabricate the branching network of blood vessels down to the capillary scale that are required to deliver the oxygen, nutrients and essential molecules required for proper tissue growth. To solve this problem, a multidisciplinary research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Arkansas State University-Jonesboro have successfully turned to plants.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Leafing through.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files from the National Science Foundation.

I love a good spinach lasagna or a killer spinach dip. Now, a team led by Worcester (wuh-stah) Polytechnic Institute is taking spinach and turning over a new leaf.

Researchers face a huge challenge as they try to regenerate full-size human tissues, bones and organs to treat disease or injuries: How to establish a vascular system that delivers blood deep into the developing tissue. Current techniques can't fabricate the intricate and complex passageways needed.

Here's where the spinach comes in. With all the differences humans have with plants, their vascular network structure is surprisingly similar to ours. The team was able to remove plant cells from the spinach leaves and repurpose the remaining framework. They cultured beating human heart cells on the structure; flowed fluids and blood cell-sized microbeads through the spinach vasculature; and they seeded the spinach veins with human cells that line blood vessels.

New work could lead to using multiple leaves to grow layers of healthy heart muscle, to treat heart attack patients and other tissue engineering technologies.

I'd like to think the researchers were all having lunch one day, and somebody ordered a spinach salad, and the rest is history.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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