By Andrew Fazekas
Weather and Science writer For Yahoo.com
New insights in how lizards regrow their tails may help crack the holy grail of limb regeneration in humans.
While regeneration still remains somewhat in the realms of science fiction, it has taken one step closer to reality thanks to the new discovery of a set of 326 genes in little green anole lizards that offers the secret recipe for regrowing their lost tails.
What appears unique with these reptiles is that the genes are causing cells discretely located in different areas – like muscle spinal cord and skin to divide – one of the co-authors of the study explained to The Huffington Post in an interview. This completely surprised scientists because they expected all the regeneration to be focused solely at the tip of the severed tail. The hope is that the same genes in humans could one day be activated to help in therapies to treat damaged spinal cords and even arthritis.
The main challenge to solving this medical mystery is discovering how to rev up the chemical reactions in the human body that lead to tissue regeneration, as seen in lizards, newts and starfish.
Another investigation last year also stumbled across a similar biological mechanism that lies dormant in humans. Researchers came across a gene in mammals that actively promotes recovery from tissue damage while still in the womb, but rapidly shuts down with aging. The gene, dubbed Lin28a, helps reactivate cells into an embryonic state that can stimulate the body to heal quickly.
In the Harvard study, mice had this special gene forced to stay on as they grew, giving the little rodents super-growing powers. They were able to heal wounds, rapidly regrow skin and even amputated toes. In the end, the scientists found they could duplicates the results by injecting the mice with drugs that increase metabolism to levels seen at younger age, thereby boosting healing powers.
The bad news with Lin28a, however, is that it only seems to stay turned on for a maximum of a month or so after birth in mice, and its tissue repair ability does not appear to extend to major organs, like the heart.
Just last month there was word of an intriguing discovery of a chain of proteins in salamanders, that sends signals to DNA within cells to activate the regrowth process. This is what allows these slimy amphibians to regenerate complex tissues beyond just limbs, including the heart, eyes, and even spinal cords. The research team also found that these same critical molecular chains are partly inactivated in mammals. The next step will be to try and force the activation of these proteins and in effect reprogram cells for regeneration.
While there still is a long way to go, researchers are hopeful that one day we may very well be able unravel the secret of how to to regrow major body parts, lizard-style . And when they do, it will transform the lives of patients suffering from major diseases, wounds and amputations.
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