It may not be to quite the same level achieved by Victor Frankenstein, but work by a team from the University of Edinburgh is likely to have significant real-world implications in the field of regenerative medicine. For the first time, the team has successfully regenerated a living organ in mice, not by using a jolt of electricity, but by manipulating DNA.
The organ in question was the thymus, which is located next to the heart and is an integral part of the immune system. In humans, it achieves most of its growth in early life, continuing to then grow slowly until puberty when it slowly begins to shrink for the remainder of a person's life. It's deterioration with age leaves older people with greater susceptibility to infections, such as flu.
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In a study led by researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, levels of a protein called FOXN1, which is produced by cells of the thymus and helps control how important genes are switched on and off, was increased. This instructed the stem cell-like cells to rebuild the organ in very old mice.
This resulted in the thymus being regenerated to have a similar structure to those found in a young mouse, with the organ's function restored and the mice producing more white blood cells called T cells, which play a central role in fighting infection.
The breakthrough could lead to new therapies for the treatment of people with damaged immune systems and genetic conditions that affect thymus development, such as DiGeorge syndrome. However, the team says more work will need to be done to ensure the process can be tightly controlled before the approach is tested on humans.
"One of the key goals in regenerative medicine is harnessing the body’s own repair mechanisms and manipulating these in a controlled way to treat disease," says Dr Rob Buckle, the Head of Regenerative Medicine at the MRC. "This interesting study suggests that organ regeneration in a mammal can be directed by manipulation of a single protein, which is likely to have broad implications for other areas of regenerative biology."
The team's study is published in the journal Development.
Source: University of Edinburgh