Will Humans Ever Be Able to Regrow Lost Limbs?

By coating it with a drug cocktail, Tufts University scientists regrew a frog's amputated leg; mammal limb regeneration could someday follow.
By coating it with a drug cocktail, Tufts University scientists regrew a frog's amputated leg; mammal limb regeneration could someday follow.

In a scientific achievement that might sound more like science fiction, Tufts University researchers enabled African clawed frogs with amputated limbs to regrow fully functional leg-like appendages in a laboratory. The scientists encased each leg stump in a silicone cap containing a protein gel laced with five drugs intended to reduce inflammation, prevent scarring, and encourage growth of nerve fibers, blood vessels, and muscle.

They let the stumps soak in the treatment for only 24 hours in a process designed to instruct the cells to multiply. Within 18 months, the frogs had new limbs and were using them to swim.

Although the researchers are optimistic that these findings could have relevance for mammalian limb regeneration, science is still many years away from being able to regrow limbs in humans.

The miracle of regeneration:

  • The next step, scientists say, is to hone the process to produce a reconstituted frog leg with normal digits, webbing and more detailed skeletal and muscular details.

  • Certain other animals can naturally regenerate complete limbs, including salamanders, starfish, crabs, and lizards. Flatworms cut up into pieces can reconstruct an entire organism from each piece.

  • The research focused on using drugs to encourage existing cells to regrow, rather than using a process that manipulated genes or introduced new stem cells. The simplicity of the process makes potential medical applications more possible.

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    • By coating it with a drug cocktail, Tufts University scientists regrew a frog's amputated leg; mammal limb regeneration could someday follow.
      By coating it with a drug cocktail, Tufts University scientists regrew a frog's amputated leg; mammal limb regeneration could someday follow.