You’ve probably already seen “Spinach turned into human heart tissue!” all over your social media feeds. It’s a great headline, and it’s even technically accurate. But while the idea is cool, just leaving it at that would be incredibly wrong (no matter how good the share will look on your timeline), because this new discovery isn’t just another reminder that science is amazing, but an important step in ending the organ transplant crisis. This isn’t just scientists turning a plant into something that can keep you alive. This is a breakthrough that might just make organ donation a thing of the past, and free millions of people from a potential death sentence.
The need for human organs in medicine is undeniably a slow-moving, but agonizing, plight. Every year, 120,000 Americans wait for an organ to become available, and 8,000 on that list will die. The need for organs is so great that it’s spiraled into a human rights crisis as people have their organs taken and sold to the highest bidder, or even outright murdered.
Complicating matters is the problem of blood type. The blood type of a donor must match the blood type of a recipient, and for the rest of their lives, recipients have to return to the hospital for blood tests, and struggle with the psychological implications of someone else’s organs in their bodies. And that’s if the transplant goes well; recipients might be taking anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives, or even find themselves back on the donor list if it doesn’t. And none of this even delves into the medical ethics of organ transplants, which can quickly become murky. If an alcoholic needs a new liver, for example, do you give it to him?
Being able to just print out organs would slice through this medical Gordian knot with ease. And we’ve had some success — you might remember the mouse that grew a human ear on its back or the African student in Iceland who had a synthetic trachea implanted in his throat. The technology is there to literally copy every organ you have and print it out in real, physical space. What’s kept every hospital in the world from just running off organs in the back room, though, is blood vessels. The intricate, spidery network that keeps our flesh alive just can’t be replicated by a 3D printer.
This is where the spinach comes in. If you grab a leaf of spinach, you’ll notice it’s got an intricate network of veins, just like us. What the scientists in this study did was take that network and build a “scaffold” of human cells around it. The cellulose dissolved and they were left with a prototype vascular system that could be laid into 3D-printed organs.
To be clear, this isn’t ready for transplantation just yet, and integrating it into other synthetic organs is an unexplored frontier. But this opens the door to ending the organ crisis in two ways. The first is obvious: we’ve just, at least in the lab, licked a major obstacle to printing out custom organs for anybody who needs them.
The second, however, is more subtle. As the writers of the study note, this flips a common tactic in robotics called “biomimicry,” where roboticists copy systems from animals, like how a fish swims, to build their bots. This study opens the door to finding similar medical systems in plants and animals, replicating them, and using them for medical purposes. Potentially, this is an entirely new field of medical science that might open the door to a litany of solutions to frustrating medical challenges. We already use snake venom, among other things found in nature, to tackle diseases (including Alzheimer’s).
This is still early days. But remember where you were when you read this headline. It might entirely change how we survive organ transplants in our lifetime.