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A Single Gene May Hold the Key to Human Regeneration

This spring, one Wistar researcher’s quest to tap the potential of tissue regeneration has reached a milestone: the identification of a gene that may hold the secret. The laboratory of Ellen Heber-Katz, Ph.D., a professor in Wistar’s Molecular and Cellular Oncogenesis Program demonstrated that the loss of a single gene, called p21, confers a healing ability to mice that scientists thought they’d lost through evolution. Their findings were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Unlike mammals, which heal wounds by forming a scar, these mice begin by forming a blastema, a cell structure associated with regeneration as seen in amphibians.  

According to Heber-Katz, in normal cells, p21 acts like a brake to block cell cycle progression if DNA becomes damaged, preventing the cells from dividing and potentially becoming cancerous. “In these mice without p21, we do see the expected increase in DNA damage, but surprisingly no increase in cancer has been reported,” Heber-Katz said.

“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 Heber-Katz. “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.”