Equinox

Today marks the first day of spring, after one of the wettest winters on record for the Northeast Atlantic coast; rolling waves of rain marched up the Iberian Peninsula, causing floods, destruction, and death across Europe. Outside it’s bright and serene, a beautiful March morning in Lisbon.

Spring brings regeneration, hope, and change. The new joins the old, and in many cases replaces it. A decade ago, a small company from California called Advanced Tissue Sciences went belly-up, having burnt through capital at a faster rate than it could generate revenue, and joined the growing ranks of defunct dot-coms. Their business model was to say the least innovative, since they proposed to grow human organs on a scaffolding, for regeneration and transplants. In particular, they worked on a product called Dermagraft, that would be used to treat and regenerate foot ulcers in diabetics. Given the huge increase in diabetes due to the food abuse in the western world, both doctors and patients saw this graft as a major contribution to quality of life in diabetics. Why? Because the alternative was amputation.

Although the company went bust, the idea didn’t. Ever since humans realised that salamanders and lizards can grow back body parts, the quest for self-healing has been one of the medical holy grails. In some organisms, regeneration is an art form. During the XIXth Century, oyster cultivation in the New York area was a major industry, fuelled by gargantuan appetites – consuming eight dozen bivalves at one sitting was perfectly reasonable – and by an equally enthusiastic supply of organic material – where there’s muck there’s brass. The growers were plagued by two competitors, oyster drills and starfish. The oyster drill problem was solved by growing small oysters at lower salinities (nearer the rivers), where the drill didn’t do well, and then moving the shellfish to saltier growout areas when the animals were larger, and the shells thicker – the defeat of the drill.

The farmers hated the starfish. When they removed them, the animals were chopped into a thousand pieces and cast away offshore. Each piece regenerated into a new animal.

Advanced Tissue also wanted to do hearts, and at one point was growing a thumb on a scaffold.

Just recently, the University of Pittsburgh has been leading the way with the use of Extracellular Matrix, or ECM. This stuff has been known to biologists for a fair while, but the good doctors at the McGowan Institute are packeting this white powder (which might in time be used to reconstruct nasal septums destroyed by other white powder) and using it to change the world. Stories (some factually documented and plainly true) are charging around the net of fingers growing back after accidents, fingernail and all. A kind of human rooting powder. And now this stuff is being used surgically, to attempt to regrow parts of organs excised due to cancer. I wonder if it works with hair!

This springtime of medicine is not about to go away. The US military is looking carefully at the potential of such weapons of muscular development (WMD) to deal with the substantial and terrible hurt locker of young people who have incurred major injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it’s working! A Google search of the three words: tissue, thumb, scaffold, returns a mere 450,000 hits. ECM organ regeneration gives 278,000. Try it again in a month.

If humans succeed in regenerating enough body parts successfully, it will make a significant contribution towards another goal, which at the moment is only available through religion: the quest for a forever springtime, the holy grail of eternal life.

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