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Loss of Single Gene Restores Regenerative Ability in Mice

Scientists have identified a gene that may regulate regeneration in mammals. The absence of this single gene, called p21, confers a healing potential in mice that was long thought to have been lost through evolution, and reserved today only for creatures like flatworms, sponges, and some species of salamander. Researchers from The Wistar Institute and collaborating institutions have now demonstrated that mice that lack the p21 gene gain the ability to regenerate lost or damaged tissue. Unlike typical mammals, which heal wounds by forming a scar, these mice begin by forming a so-called “blastema,” a structure associated with rapid cell growth and de-differentiation as seen in amphibians. According to the researchers, the loss of p21 causes the cells of these mice to behave more like embryonic stem cells than adult mammalian cells, and the findings provide solid evidence to link tissue regeneration to the control of cell division. "Much like a newt that has lost a limb, these mice will replace missing or damaged tissue with healthy tissue that lacks any sign of scarring," said the project's lead scientist Dr. Ellen Heber-Katz, a professor in Wistar's Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis program. "While we are just beginning to understand the repercussions of these findings, perhaps one day we'll be able to accelerate healing in humans by temporarily inactivating the p21 gene." This research was published online on March 15, 2010 in PNAS. [Press release] [PNAS abstract]