Of Mice and Sea Squirts…

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Recent research points to organ transplants becoming a thing of the past, and that those missing limbs can throw away their prosthetics.  These breakthroughs are firstly that scientists have grown stem cells in a living animal for the first time, and that Sea Squirts might hold the key to limb regeneration. A very significant step, the research on mice could pave the way for damaged human limbs or organs being regrown inside patients. Back in the day (well, very recently actually,) Scientists had taken strides in what is known as regenerative medicine by taking cells out of the body, treating them in the lab and then putting the regenerated cells back.However, this latest study has seen researchers develop pluripotent stem cells in the kidney, stomach, intestine and pancreas of mice.

It’s a Spanish study and the lead authour of the article in the publication Nature, Maria Abad, said:

‘Our stem cells also survive outside of mice, in a culture, so we can also manipulate them in a laboratory. This change of direction in development has never been observed in nature.’

Prof Chris Mason, of University College London, called the research the

‘beginning of limb regeneration’. ‘The ultimate goal is regrow an arm or a limb but it is very early on in that route. But it is very significant and could have a massive impact on cell therapies. For instance, being able to treat cells within the body would reduce the costs of cell treatment significantly.’

We are certainly not there yet. What you’re getting with one hand nature seems to be taking back with the other: The technique in its present form has caused some of the mice to develop cancer-like tumours.

Turning to aquatic allies, the closest relative we humans have in the vast panoply of  invertebrate species that blanket the earth is a tiny, unassuming marine set of animals called Sea Squirts or Tunicates.  Get a load of this; they are able to regenerate their damaged tissue from their blood vessels alone.

Scientists believe that this odd characteristic may hold the genetic secrets that might eventually allow humans to regrow a lost arm, or accept a heart from someone else without danger of rejection. Up till now it’s been seen largely as a pest because it can foul up beaches, boats, and kill crabs, oysters and many other species of sea-life. It thrives in polluted harbours.

It is believed to have been the first invertebrate to have a vasculature heart system, similar to that in humans, with blood cells traveling through blood vessels. But astonishingly, it can regrow everything just with its blood vessels.

Ayelet Voskoboynik of Stanford University’s Stem Cell Institute and an international team of scientists have just sequenced the genome of one species of this Sea Squirt; Botryllus schlosseri. The hope is that once scientists understand how the genes operate in the animal, they will be able to come up with new treatments for a wide range of human diseases. The researchers found that over three quarters of human genes were also present in  Botryllus schlosseri.

The reserachers see possibilities of cures for  heart diseases, cataracts, and deafness. So perhaps we should think twice before scraping off the orange muck from the bottom of our boats, or the harbour wall at low tide.

 

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