It’s not just Wolverine that has the ability to rebuild and restore wounded tissue. In fact, we all have a quite remarkable capacity to heal when we suffer an injury, thanks to our ability to produce new stem cells. Obviously, there is a limit to how much damage our bodies can repair, although researchers may have just discovered a way to enhance our powers of restoration by increasing the rate at which these stem cells are generated.
A new study in the journal Regenerative Medicine describes how scientists were able to stimulate the self-repair response of rats in order to rebuild broken spines. Healing similar injuries in humans is currently not possible, and the study authors are hopeful that their technique could one day help people recover from a range of previously untreatable injuries.
Rats in the study were given a cocktail of two drugs, one of which is normally administered during bone marrow transplants while the other is used for bladder control. This caused the rats’ bone marrow to produce an elevated number of mesenchymal stem cells, which are stem cells that can develop into bone tissue.
As a consequence, enhanced calcium binding was seen at the site of the rats’ spinal injuries, speeding up the formation of new bone and healing the wounds.
The figure on the right shows the level of healing with no treatment, while the figure on the left shows the effect of the two drugs in combination. The red coloring indicates calcium incorporating into the bone, which is associated with enhanced healing. Image: Imperial College London
“We know that when bones break they will heal, and this requires the activation of stem cells in the bone,” explained study co-author Sara Rankin in a statement. “However, when the damage is severe, there are limits to what the body can do of its own accord.”
“We hope that by using these existing medications to mobilize stem cells, as we were able to do in rats in our new study, we could potentially call up extra numbers of these stem cells, in order to boost our bodies own ability to mend itself and accelerate the repair process.”
Because the drugs involved are already widely used, the researchers are hopeful that human trials can proceed without the need for extensive safety testing. If these trials produce the same results as those seen in rats, then this treatment could help to not only repair spinal injuries, but to speed up the rate at which broken bones heal and even mend damaged tissues in other organs.