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Replacing lost limbs shows growth

Tuesday, 20 February 2007 — by

Tens of thousands of people around the world every year await suitable organs to replace those of their own that are exhausted, damaged or diseased. Many don’t live long enough and die before any suitable organs are found.

Many more people lose limbs and only in past five years or so has limb replacement become truly practical, even though organ replacement has been around for a decade or two.

The principle problem with replacing either an organ or a limb is the possibility of rejection by the host – the host being you and the rest of your body.

The thing is, your body isn’t stupid and it knows when something shouldn’t be there.

So to make an organ or limb acceptable, you have to fool the body into accepting it. This fooling involves immunosuppressant drugs to keep your immune system low enough to prevent your body from killing the new body part.

Going out on a limb

The other problem associated with replacing either a limb or more vitally an organ, is that someone typically has to die for you to benefit. There are notable exceptions, such as kidneys, lungs and sections of liver, but in the main, someone has to die for you to live.

And even when you get your new limb or organ, your own life expectancy is trimmed a little because the threat of rejection always looms on the horizon.

Plus, because your immune system is being artificially suppressed, you’re vulnerable to common infections that would otherwise be innocuous and largely harmless.

Getting a leg up

Some animals possess the natural ability to re-grow lost limbs, such as salamanders and many crustaceans. Unfortunately, we don’t. However, we do seem to have the DNA kicking around inside us that would impart such abilities.

So while scientists busy themselves trying to figure that particular helically-shaped challenge, scientists elsewhere work with what sounds like some Asian culinary ingredient to help re-grow lost limbs:

“This summer, scientists are planning to see whether the powdered pig extract can help injured soldiers regrow parts of their fingers. And a large federally funded project is trying to unlock the secrets of how some animals regrow body parts so well, with hopes of applying the the lessons to humans.”

The immediate focus seems to be on replacing lost digits, such as fingers & toes, which has obvious implications and applications in a military scenario, thus the interest from the army:

“The implications for regrowing fingers go beyond the cosmetic. People who are missing all or most of their fingers, as from an explosion or a fire, often can’t pick things up, brush their teeth or button a button. If they could grow even a small stub, it could make a huge difference in their lives.”

But their eyes are always fixed on the future:

“And the lessons learned from studying regrowth of fingers and limbs could aid the larger field of regenerative medicine, perhaps someday helping people replace damaged parts of their hearts and spinal cords, and heal wounds and burns with new skin instead of scar.”

Land of the rising sun and the shining teeth

Speaking of Asia:

“Japanese researchers said on Sunday they had grown normal-looking teeth from single cells in lab dishes, and transplanted them into mice.

They used primitive cells, not quite as early as stem cells, and injected them into a framework of collagen, the material that holds the body together.”

It’s an intriguing possibility. Plenty of people lose teeth either through accidental injury, disease or just poor oral hygiene. On top of which, there’s an entire industry built on the back of cosmetic dentistry, so there’s plenty of money to made.

An eye on the future

In the future, the loss of limbs, organs and various smaller appendages needn’t be the problem that it is now.

In the future, losing a finger or even an arm might be nothing more than an inconvenience, rather than a life-changing dilemma that it is in the here & now…

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