Deep within our bodies are all kinds of genes that turn on and off over the years, including the very genes that make you grow a body in the first place. This is where scientists are looking for the magical code that could enable us to regrow organs and regenerate limbs. One Harvard researcher thinks he might have found it.
George Daley of Harvard Medical School stumbled upon it somewhat accidentally, in fact. While employing a (rather cruel) identification technique for his lab mice—clipping their ears or the tips of their toes—he noticed something odd. Unlike other mice, these little guys would grow back their ears and toes in a few days. Why? Well, the mice had been genetically engineered so that a gene that helps them grow in the womb would continue to function after birth. It would, in a sense, never turn itself off. It's called Lin28a, and, by boosting metabolism, it can trick the body into thinking it's younger than it actually is.
This is good news! The only question now is: How good? Daley and company confirmed that the gene could regrow parts of body parts, but his method had some limitations. Scientific American described the experiment's shortcomings thusly:
The power of Lin28a appeared to only extend so far. When mice were no longer babies—at five weeks—the scientists were not able to regenerate their limbs, even if the gene was stimulated. And mice with Lin28a activation were never able to repair damage to the heart, suggesting that the protein is not equally effective everywhere in the body.
So Lin28a works—but not forever, and not everywhere. Don't give up hope, however, because there are plenty of other genes out there that could be the key. Now that scientists know bodily healing can be controlled by manipulating certain metabolic processess, they can seek out other genes that might be involved. In other words, they now know where to look.
Limb regeneration is likely still a ways off, but we're now one step closer. Even basic research on Lin28a could be tremendously important for making new drugs that enable us to heal faster and better. Call it the Wolverine gene. [Scientific American]