Regenerative medicine is one of the most exciting fields in science and medicine right now – but what’s it all about? And how far can we realistically take it?
What if Humans Could Regenerate?
The older we humans get, the more wounds and
scars we tend to accumulate just by merit
of being alive and making our way through
the world. Some injuries are clearly more
serious or life-changing than others but all
bumps, scrapes and accidents to some degree
change or challenge our bodies. But, will
it always be this way?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering
the extraordinary question; What if humans
could regenerate?
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Fiction is full of superpowered or inhuman
characters who possess incredible healing
abilities. Since the 1960s, the BBC’s “Doctor
Who” has ruled the roost of regeneration
legend, with its iconic Time Lord changing
their face and body every time the lead actor
retires – usually via a chaotic process using
lots of mystical “regeneration energy”.
But while “Doctor Who” is probably the
example most synonymous with the terminology,
there are plenty of other heroes who are also
extreme healers. Wolverine has his adamantium
skeleton and super-speedy recovery times;
Deadpool can heal from any ailment and even
regrow limbs; and the Flash’s speedster
metabolism means he’s never off his feet
for long… Then, in a time even further back
than comic books and TV shows we had mythological
figures; like the serpentine Hydra which regrows
two heads for every one chopped off, and the
Titan Prometheus who regrows his entire liver
every night after having it pecked out by
an eagle.
And amazingly, in the real world, regeneration
isn’t actually as fantastical as these examples
may lead us to believe. It’s a prevalent
trait in the animal kingdom, possessed by
all sorts of creatures from salamanders to
flatworms to starfish. Lobsters, too, can
regrow their claws and legs. There’s even
a creature, the potentially immortal jellyfish
“Turritopsis dohrnii”, which is capable
of forcing its own cells to regress to a younger
state if it suffers enough damage – it can
start its entire life cycle all over again.
So, it’s not completely ludicrous to imagine
humans reaching a similar point one day in
the future, either through evolution or technological
advancement. Though, it’s also important
to note that many “regenerating animals”
like flatworms and jellyfish aren’t particularly
complex in other ways; starfish might be able
to regrow their lost arms, for example, but
they don’t even have brains… so converting
their skill into a human ability would definitely
be tricky.
That isn’t to say that humans aren’t already
good healers just because we can’t grow
back entire limbs, however. Humans are actually
incredibly robust lifeforms, capable of at
least potentially overcoming a variety of
injuries and diseases thanks not just to our
biology but also to our intelligence and ability
to develop medicine. But even without medicine,
some parts of our bodies possess extensive
regenerative abilities, most famously the
liver which, in some cases, can repair itself
following alcohol abuse. Liver recovery is
by no means a given, but it is arguably the
hardiest of all human organs… while human
skin is also a good healer as it is, often
recovering from smaller wounds without leaving
any sign of scar tissue. We’ve even seen
cases of lost fingertips effectively being
“re-grown”. But of course, regeneration
differs from simple, standard healing because
the tissue in sci-fi-style regeneration is
brand new. It’s not scar tissue covering
an injury, it’s fresh, never-before-used
cells and flesh. Even here, though, we do
already have a starting point.
The human body actually regenerates most of
its cells every seven to ten years (depending
on what type of cells they are). Although,
this obviously doesn’t imbue us with everlasting
youth… Some scientists think this is because
ageing is part of our DNA, which is contained
in every cell… and, because our DNA is the
same from birth, we (and our DNA) get older
despite our cells getting newer. In this way
though, it’s true to say that you’re actually
regenerating right now as you watch this video!
More seriously, faster regenerative healing
is a major focus of modern medicine and has
already been demonstrated a few times. Certain
body parts have been regrown in labs, drugs
have been used to force cells to heal, and
stem cell research continues to uncover other
possibilities. While the use of stem cells
is controversial because researchers and doctors
often get them from terminated or non-viable
human embryos, they do possess the unique
ability to become any other type of cell – which
could also be vital in the battle against
some conditions and diseases. Adults also
have stem cells, though, usually found in
bone marrow, and some experiments to convert
adult stem cells to have the same properties
as embryonic stem cells have been successful…
all of which bodes well for potential human
Though again not without their controversies,
animal experiments have also made progress…
For example, scientists have successfully
led African clawed frogs to regrow amputated
limbs after treating the injury with a compound
made from progesterone, a female sex hormone.
While tadpoles have displayed the ability
to regrow their tails, which has led to early
speculation that human embryos might be able
to do the same thing with limbs.
However, one of the big concerns in human
regenerative medicine is how to get the cells
to stop growing once a new limb, or a new
anything else, has successfully formed. If
new cells don’t stop growing, rather than
uncovering a ground-breaking method of healing,
we might have actually discovered a way to
artificially induce cancer, which nobody wants.
In the frog experiment, though, the frog legs
did stop growing after a few months, and the
test animals were ultimately indistinguishable
from other frogs whose legs hadn’t been
amputated. While further experiments on mice
have shown that it might just be a single
gene – the p21 gene – that’s responsible
for preventing humans from regenerating in
the first place. Lab mice bred without this
gene have reportedly shown superior healing
powers, which could mean that the same would
be true of humans. However, proposed removal
of the p21 gene has similar controversies
surrounding it… with many suspecting that
it’s actually responsible for mitigating
cancer, meaning we’d potentially again be
more likely to develop cancers without p21
to keep us in check. As has become clear in
recent years, there’s a very fine balance
here, between an incredible medical breakthrough
and a deadly human disaster.
All things considered, it does look like regenerative
medicine of some description is on the horizon.
So, if – or when – we finally get it,
what effect might it have on the world? Well,
for a start, regenerative medicine isn’t
really a route to immortality. All animals
already capable of regenerating do eventually
die, even the “potentially” immortal jellyfish,
which only regenerates when wounded and won’t
“start again” if it reaches the end of
its life naturally. Similarly, the axolotl
can regenerate almost any part of its body,
but it still only has a life expectancy of
15 years. As for flatworms, they’re able
to regrow their heads and brains, but often
live for only a matter of weeks. Again, regeneration
as we know it doesn’t reset DNA, so it doesn’t
reverse or “beat” the ageing process.
Clearly though, just because we wouldn’t
become immortal doesn’t mean that regenerative
medicine isn’t worthwhile. It would surely
still increase our life expectancy and our
general quality of life once we get old. With
regen treatments across the board, we’d
no longer find ourselves felled by injury.
Instead, we’d be capable of overcoming all
that life could throw at us, leaving us only
at the mercy of how quickly our bodies age.
Naturally, the most visible result of regenerative
therapy would be people with missing limbs
being able to regrow their body parts, but
even some seemingly unrelated ailments would
be a thing of the past. Alzheimer’s disease,
for instance, happens when a build-up of certain
proteins in the brain starts to damage nerve
cells; but regenerative medicine could repair
the damage that Alzheimer’s does to those
cells, reversing and potentially even curing
it! Lung and heart disease, both common causes
of death, could also be stopped if damaged
organ tissue can be fully repaired. Our physical
journeys through life in general would throw
up much less cause for concern were treatments
like these efficient and widely available.
With less injury, sickness and stress over
our health, people would live longer, better
and happier lives. The ailments that come
hand-in-hand with “being alive” would
be mere bumps in the road; temporary problems
that are easy to fix. And that’s what would
happen if humans could regenerate.
What do you think? Is there anything we missed?
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