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Self-heal like Wolverine? Gene discovery might hold clues

In a discovery by a Harvard researcher, a reactivated gene found in embryos helps mice regrow clipped parts of their ears and toes. Could the "fountain of youth" gene hold promise for humans too?

Could we heal like Wolverine? Sideburns and anger issues not included.
Twentieth Century Fox

If scientists can clone sheep and 3D-print human ears, surely they can figure out how to make our bodies heal themselves like Wolverine's does.

Thanks to a curious accidental discovery from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital researcher George Daley, we may be closer than we previously thought.

While conducting cancer research, Daley clipped holes in ears of mice that were genetically engineered with the Lin28a gene so he could quickly tell them apart from the control group. But the holes kept healing. So he clipped their toes, but they grew back. He then waxed their backs, but their fur grew back more quickly than usual. It appeared that Lin28a -- a gene that scientists think regulates the self-renewal of stem cells -- gave the mice special regeneration abilities.

"It sounds like science fiction, but Lin28a could be part of a healing cocktail that gives adults the superior tissue repair seen in juvenile animals," said Daley, lead author of a study that appears in the November 7 issue of Cell.

Aside from any "Rats of NIMH" flashbacks many of us might be having from this description, it's worth considering the scientific significance of Daley's accidental discovery.

The team "found they could replicate the healing abilities of the engineered mice by giving non-genetically altered ones drugs that help activate certain metabolic processes -- the same pathway Lin28a stimulates -- revving up and energizing cells as if they were much younger," Scientific American explains.

The findings reveal that at least part of the reason that most animals cannot regenerate lost limbs lies in their metabolism. When Lin28a turns on and expresses a protein in the body, it boosts the metabolism, apparently fooling the body into thinking that it is younger and spurring a complex cascade of chemical reactions that generate energy. The research shows how the same mechanisms that ordinarily provide cellular energy can also drive more exotic processes such as wound healing.

For now, the scientists only observed the healing power of Lin28a in baby mice and couldn't replicate the same limb regeneration in mice past 5 weeks old.

"This is a gene that has now stimulated tremendous interest, and that is a testimony to its central role in many areas of biology," Daley said. But while humans can already regenerate fingertips, spurring human regenerative abilities with the gene remains a long way off -- no drugs are known to effectively turn Lin28a on in humans. "This is exciting and illuminating research on the principle of regeneration," Daley said. "I hope it will stimulate other research that would have clinical implications."

The research may indeed be exciting, but since we won't all be turning into X-Men mutants tomorrow, we suggest taking good care of yourself and not picking fights with Deadpool.