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YOUR HEALTH: Using spinach to help cure lung disease

PHOENIX, Arizona – University of Arizona researchers believe they may have found the next best testing ground for their work: in the grocery store.

In a lab in Phoenix, scientists are turning spinach leaves into high-tech scaffolding for tissue engineering and disease research.

"The scaffold, the plant can be used to grow the cells, but also now all the veins and the stem of the leaf could be used as the vascular system," explained Frederick Zenhausern, professor and director of the Center for Applied Nanobioscience and Medicine at the University of Arizona.

Frederic Zenhausern's team is creating a 3-D leaf platform.

First, they use detergents and a flushing system to de-cellularize the leaf.

"You need to remove the cells from the plant, be sure that there is no residue or component of the plant, and then be able to bring the human component to those scaffolds," said Zenhausern.

Pulmonologist Ken Knox sees similarities between leaf veins and lungs.   Now, he's on the team that will eventually put lung cells on the leaf scaffold.

"So our hope would be that we have this model that serves as a platform that we could take a patient's blood and test it in concert with the models such that it's very specific to that patient's responses," said Dr. Knox, who is also the Research Director of the Lung Institute at Banner-University Medical Center.

That could be good news for Jim Franks, who has sarcoidosis.  It causes inflammation in the lungs and is one of the conditions Dr. Knox is studying.

"It's really the dry cough and short of breath," he explained.   "And it does kick in if I do something really strenuous."

TREATMENTS:   While there is no cure for sarcoidosis, over half of the cases go away on their own.   Treatment is only necessary if a patient is showing significant signs and symptoms.  If they are severe or organ function is threatened, patients can be treated with medications. These include things like corticosteroids; powerful anti-inflammatory drugs and medications that suppress the immune system like Trexall, Azasan, or Imuran.   Hydroxychloroquine may be helpful for skin reactions and elevated blood-calcium levels.  Or possibly even tumor necrosis factor-alpha inhibitors that are commonly used to treat inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis.   Organ transplant surgery may be considered if the disease has seriously caused damage to the heart, lungs, or liver.

He loves the possibility of doctors finding treatments with the lung on a leaf.

"I like the idea that future generations that have this disease might, may have different treatments alternatives."

Dr. Knox says the team will have figured out how to consistently reproduce the leaf model in two years.   At that time, he hopes to start testing therapies in their lung on a leaf.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at


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