The whole foray into stem cell research is fueled by the desire to achieve human regeneration. While some kinds of human tissue regenerate, we see in some animals the ability to regenerate whole limbs and appendages.
Another animal with the ability to self-heal has been studied, and we have found out part of what gives it that remarkable ability. Researchers from Duke University and the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research have found a key protein for the spinal regeneration observed in zebrafish.
The zebrafish is a common freshwater fish that can be purchased in many pet stores for under $2 per fish. Perhaps world changing discoveries in medical science also like to hide in plain site. The fish, unlike humans, can repair a completely severed spinal cord. To do that, the disjointed parts create a bridge, or cell projections that branch out over large gaps. Nerve cells then follow this bridge, eventually repairing the damage.
Researchers searched for the important genes and proteins that enable this process. They found an intriguing protein, CTGF or connective tissue growth factor, that was only secreted by cells that formed the bridge.
When they prevented the CTGF from being coded, the fish were unable to regenerate. And since humans and zebrafish share protein coding genes, when boosted with the human-version of CTGF, the regeneration process was also boosted.
But as with other studies in animal regeneration, figuring out the process is the easier part of the battle. The researchers admit that mammalian bodies are far more complex, and translating the process to humans could take far more time, even if it is discovered to be possible.
This study is but one in a whole branch of biology, regeneration biology, dedicated to studying animal regeneration and trying to make it work for humans.
While this study provides no direct discovery in making humans regenerate, advancements in regeneration biology as a whole promise not only healing of limbs, but ultimately longer or. perhaps someday, even infinite lifespans.