Research organisms that are particularly useful for studying regeneration include the blue-and-white striped zebrafish and the planarian. The zebrafish can replace a damaged or lost fin, and can also repair significant damage to its heart, pancreas, retina, brain, and even spinal cord. The planarian, a freshwater flatworm, can regrow its entire body from a tiny fragment of its tissue. Humans have the same genes and pathways used by these animals that can regenerate damaged limbs and organs, but we do not have such extensive regenerative potential. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) funds research to understand how regeneration works at the basic level, and why some organisms have more limited regenerative capacities than others. This research may allow humans to one day use our regeneration pathways to repair damaged hearts or to even replace lost limbs.
What role do stem cells have in regeneration?
Stem cells have received some of the most intensive study related to regeneration. This is because stem cells can renew themselves millions of times. Other cells in the body, such as nerve cells, cannot do this. For example, adult stem cells are tissue-specific cells that also can replenish cells. Their primary roles are to maintain and repair the tissue in which they’re found. Scientists are exploring whether a person’s own stem cells could “grow” replacement tissue that wouldn’t be rejected by the body’s immune system.
How is regeneration related to aging?
Throughout an organism’s life, its cells regenerate. But as part of the aging process, this ability gradually diminishes. To better understand the changes that occur, scientists are studying animals that show few signs of aging throughout their lifespans. Sea urchins, for example, can reproduce and regrow damaged parts throughout their lives. Because they maintain these abilities, sea urchins may help scientists answer questions about human aging as well as regeneration.
What type of regeneration research does NIGMS support?
NIGMS-funded scientists are focused primarily on understanding the basic features of regeneration. For example, researchers are looking closely at where the cells involved in regenerated tissue originate. State-of-the-art imaging tools let them watch tissue regeneration in living animals, and genetic techniques allow them to systematically identify the genes involved in regeneration. Many scientists are working to better understand the unique properties of stem cells and their role in regeneration. Others are looking for chemical compounds that could be used as medicines to stimulate regeneration. Knowledge gained from these basic biomedical studies will provide a foundation for future clinical applications.