June 2, 2009
Could the salamander's natural ability to grow back severed appendages lead to a scientific breakthrough for humans who have lost limbs?
With the help of a $6.25 million U.S. Department of Defense grant, Tulane University professor Ken Muneoka, the John L. and Mary Wright Ebaugh chair in science and engineering, 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 will then attempt to determine how the same genes are regulated in response to injuries in mice who, because of their similar genetic characteristics, serve as a model for humans.
"The hope is that once the genetic signals for regeneration are identified, therapies can be developed to enhance the regenerative response in humans," Muneoka says.
Regeneration of tissue in humans is a long-term goal of Muneoka who, like his colleagues, has conducted research in this area for many decades.
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. Muneoka says this might involve cell-based therapies with regeneration-promoting cells, and/or factor-based therapies, such as providing a specific growth factor, to initiate and/or sustain the 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 that will fund Muneoka and his colleagues' research is the result of a competition 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 (MURI) 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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