It’s only a fleshwound!

I read an article today on the BBC site about tissue regeneration that I felt was worth mentioning here.

Regeneration research has been going on for quite a while now and various groups have had varying degrees of success with the process. Regeneration research is generally based on the question; “Lower organisms quite often have the ability to repair/replace perfectly, large (or whole) parts of their body should they become damaged or lost, so why don’t we?”

Examples of common regenerative organisms are the starfish, which can regrow lost limbs and in cases where the lost limb has part of the disk intact, even grow a new starfish from that, or the salamander which can regrow a lost tail or limb. Many other simple organisms also have this ability and in some, such as certain nematode worms, they even maintain a constant number of cells in their body, down to the single cell.

There are various theories about why more advanced organisms don’t have this ability and external papers have a lot more to say about this than I can cover here, but they can generally be summarised into “it might cause uncontrolled cell growth (cancer) in higher organisms” or it’s too much energy to expend when it’s not really needed for procreation.  At a species level having organisms not die out and make room for further generations can be argued to be detrimental at a resource level but that’s a bit suspect to me if you believe in “the selfish gene” explanation of evolution.

Research in this area varies but many scientists think that, thanks to the “scaffolding” style of gene mutation and development, many of us still have the genetic sequences or metabolic pathways for regeneration which are simply switched off or dormant.

It’s an area of research I’ve been keeping an eye on for the last few years, and quite a few researchers have been working on ways to re-activate these genes or pathways. The above article cites a particular case of a man who apparently re-grew an amputated finger tip that I had actually read about a few moths ago in a smaller paper. I had dismissed it at the time as it was not widely followed and the language of the text, “I used my pixie dust”, really screamed “hoax or lie” to me.

However, it turns out, in this far more detailed article, that the powder used is actually engineered by a reputable science department at the University of Pittsburgh.  The powder is in fact an “extra cellular matrix” which the cells on the edge of the damaged region can use as a substrate to encourage cellular growth rather than scar tissue formation. (our “advanced” bodies standard response to damage these days)

This is very exciting in many ways in that is shows that there is a framework or metabolic pathway there that can be stimulated into activity and repair, at least in some cases, gross bodily damage.

They admit themselves that there are possible limitations and drawbacks to the system but it offers an exciting insight into the (hopefully) soon to exist possibilities for people to regenerate lost body parts, damaged organs or eternal scarring.

This is especially poignant for people like me who have non immediately life threatening organ degeneration. I personally have “primary sclerosing cholangitis” which is where the ducts in my liver, slowly over time, get scar tissue building up on them due to repeated damage (no not drinking, auto-immune). This has the effect of decreasing the function of the liver to the eventual point of failure and transplant.

A regeneration “powder” or technique would allow people like me to have a series of operations where say 25% of my liver is removed, (the body can gt by for a while with about 50% working)  encouraged to grow back new and shiny, then another 25% and so on and so on until a full new liver is in place.

So in summary, not groundbreaking or world changing yet. But quite a nice step on the way to making our bodies far more repairable and possibly even rejuvinateable to a younger, healthier age point. I’ll be keeping a keen eye on how this and related research pans out.