Regrow limbs like a salamander?

TULANE (US)—Can the salamander’s natural ability to grow back severed appendages lead to a breakthrough for humans who have lost limbs? Research led by a Tulane University biologist may yield the answer.

“The hope is that once the genetic signals for regeneration are identified, therapies can be developed to enhance the regenerative response in humans,” says Ken Muneoka, a biology professor in Tulane’s department of cell and molecular biology.

With the help of a $6.25 million Department of Defense grant, Muneoka will lead a team of researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the University of Kentucky to identify the genes that trigger regeneration in the axolotl, a Mexican salamander.

The researchers then will attempt to determine how the same genes are regulated in response to injuries in mice, which, because of their similar genetic characteristics, serve as a model for humans.

Regeneration of tissue in humans is Muneoka’s long-term goal. The shorter-term goal is to modify the body’s natural healing process to transition from a scar-forming response to the initiation of a regenerative response.

While the salamander is the only animal capable of regenerating lost appendages, a child can grow back the tip of a severed finger, and, even in adults, bone, muscle, cartilage and skin can independently undergo a healing and regeneration response.

“What’s missing is a way to coordinate these events so complex structures can be restored,” Muneoka says. “By establishing a comprehensive database that identifies all the genes involved in regenerating a salamander limb, we will essentially create a genetic blueprint of how to do the same in humans.”

The grant is the result of a competition that the Army Research Office, the Office of Naval Research, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research conducted under the Department of Defense’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative Program. Through the competition, 69 academic institutions were awarded $260 million over the next five years to perform multidisciplinary basic research.

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