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Do salamanders hold the solution to regeneration?
Salamanders’ immune systems are key to their remarkable ability to regrow limbs, and could also underpin their ability to regenerate spinal cords, brain tissue and even parts of their hearts, scientists have found.
In research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers from the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute (ARMI) at Monash University found that when immune cells known as macrophages were systemically removed, salamanders lost their ability to regenerate a limb and instead formed scar tissue.
Lead researcher, Dr James Godwin, a Fellow in the laboratory of ARMI Director Professor Nadia Rosenthal, said the findings brought researchers a step closer to understanding what conditions were needed for regeneration.
“Previously, we thought that macrophages were negative for regeneration, and this research shows that that’s not the case - if the macrophages are not present in the early phases of healing, regeneration does not occur,” Dr Godwin said.
“Now, we need to find out exactly how these macrophages are contributing to regeneration. Down the road, this could lead to therapies that tweak the human immune system down a more regenerative pathway.”
Salamanders deal with injury in a remarkable way. The end result is the complete functional restoration of any tissue, on any part of the body including organs. The regenerated tissue is scar free and almost perfectly replicates the injury site before damage occurred.
“We can look to salamanders as a template of what perfect regeneration looks like,” Dr Godwin said.
Aside from “holy grail” applications, such as healing spinal cord and brain injuries, Dr Godwin believes that studying the healing processes of salamanders could lead to new treatments for a number of common conditions, such as heart and liver diseases, which are linked to fibrosis or scarring. Promotion of scar-free healing would also dramatically improve patients’ recovery following surgery.
There are indications that there is the capacity for regeneration in a range of animal species, but it has, in most cases been turned off by evolution.
“Some of these regenerative pathways may still be open to us. We may be able to turn up the volume on some of these processes,” Dr Godwin said.
“We need to know exactly what salamanders do and how they do it well, so we can reverse-engineer that into human therapies.”
Month of birth impacts on immune system development
Newborn babies’ immune system development and levels of vitamin D have been found to vary according to their month of birth, according to new research.
The research, from scientists at Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Oxford, provides a potential biological basis as to why an individual’s risk of developing the neurological condition multiple sclerosis (MS) is influenced by their month of birth. It also supports the need for further research into the potential benefits of vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy.
Around 100,000 people in the UK have MS, a disabling neurological condition which results from the body’s own immune system damaging the central nervous system. This interferes with the transmission of messages between the brain and other parts of the body and leads to problems with vision, muscle control, hearing and memory.
The development of MS is believed to be a result of a complex interaction between genes and the environment.
A number of population studies have suggested that the month you are born in can influence your risk of developing MS. This ‘month of birth’ effect is particularly evident in England, where the risk of MS peaks in individuals born in May and drops in those delivered in November. As vitamin D is formed by the skin when it is exposed to sunlight, the ‘month of birth’ effect has been interpreted as evidence of a prenatal role for vitamin D in MS risk.
In this study, samples of cord blood – blood extracted from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord – were taken from 50 babies born in November and 50 born in May between 2009 and 2010 in London.
The blood was analysed to measure levels of vitamin D and levels of autoreactive T-cells. T-cells are white blood cells which play a crucial role in the body’s immune response by identifying and destroying infectious agents, such as viruses. However some T-cells are ‘autoreactive’ and capable of attacking the body’s own cells, triggering autoimmune diseases, and should be eliminated by the immune system during its development. This job of processing T-cells is carried out by the thymus , a specialised organ in the immune system located in the upper chest cavity.
The results showed that the May babies had significantly lower levels of vitamin D (around 20 per cent lower than those born in November) and significantly higher levels (approximately double) of these autoreactive T-cells, compared to the sample of November babies.
Co-author Dr Sreeram Ramagopalan, a lecturer in neuroscience at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, part of Queen Mary, said: “By showing that month of birth has a measurable impact on in utero immune system development, this study provides a potential biological explanation for the widely observed “month of birth” effect in MS. Higher levels of autoreactive T-cells, which have the ability to turn on the body, could explain why babies born in May are at a higher risk of developing MS.
“The correlation with vitamin D suggests this could be the driver of this effect. There is a need for long-term studies to assess the effect of vitamin D supplementation in pregnant women and the subsequent impact on immune system development and risk of MS and other autoimmune diseases.”
The research letter is published today in the journal JAMA Neurology.