Popeye and Your Heart

That cartoon image of Popeye gulping down a can of spinach and immediately gaining the strength to defend Olive Oyl’s honor and win her heart is a classic. And it appeals not just to my juvenile sense of humor but my concern for cardiac well-being. 

It has long been known, and widely touted, that a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, seafood, a glass of red wine and glugs of olive oil are good for your ticker. And leafy green veggies, like spinach, are known to have all sorts of health benefits. Well here’s another one you may not have heard of.

A heart attack occurs when blood supply to heart muscle is compromised, leading to death of cells at the least and if large enough, to death, period.  Such areas of muscular damage impede the heart’s ability to function efficiently causing all sorts of problems – rhythm disorders, breathlessness, weakness, impaired kidney function and more. The mainstay of treatment is to try and mitigate deficient blood flow by expanding narrowed blood vessels with a small balloon and then using a stent to hold the artery open or perform a major operation to bypass blocked arteries.

To address badly damaged muscle, sometimes a heart transplant is the only option, but lack of organs for donation leads to several thousand Americans dying each year. Scientists have been looking at whether stem cells derived from various sources, including leg muscle, abdominal wall fat and placenta can be injected into the heart with the hope they can “become” new muscle cells. This work is being carried out in many centers around the world and, like other uses for stem cells, does hold some promise. Of course, it is never as simple as a lay description might suggest or the desperate might hope; the heart has a structure and merely throwing cells in without comprehending this may be doomed to failure. Enter spinach.

Although there is no doubt Spinacea oleracea as a component of a balanced diet is a good thing, with or without Olive Oyl – or oil – the humble leaf may play another role in solving heart issues.

Two biological engineers, Joshua Gerlshlak and Glenn Gaudette, were having a lunch replete with spinach at Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute discussing the shortage of organs for transplantation. Even given the advances in stem cell technology, the absence of a reproducible 3-D replacement organ represents a challenge, mainly because having placed new cells one must ensure they get an adequate blood supply. And given that heart muscle is pretty thick, one needs a network of tiny arteries – tubes – to travel between cell layers.

Enter Popeye’s magical spinach. Having washed away the cellular material one is left with a cellulose matrix and veins that would normally transport nutrients throughout the leaf – given cellulose is known to be compatible with mammalian tissue, could this be the basis for a structural heart repair kit? Lo and behold the chaps in Worcester were able to document beating heart cells seeded onto the leaf structure. There is certainly a lot more work to do, stacking leaves to create a thick enough heart replacement kit and then doing experiments to ascertain if they work inside an actual heart. But it is a good and exciting first step.

Other lateral thinking has seen apple slices being used to regrow a human ear – proof that an apple a day might actually keep the doctor around instead of away.

At this stage, we can be hopeful that clever research like this might one day provide hope for those with serious cardiac disease but in the interim we can be certain that keeping weight under control, a diet rich in good stuff, lots of exercise, and regular blood pressure checks are guaranteed to minimize your risk of needing a spinach implant!

Jonathan Sackier

Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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