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Institute of Molecular Pathology
Health

This Adorable Salamander May Help Doctors Cure Paralysis

The axolotl, otherwise known as the Mexican walking fish, is a salamander that can regenerate lost limbs, parts of its heart, and even sections of its brain.

It’s basically a Marvel superhero.

And it turns out that the gene that allows the animal to do this is also present in humans.

This groundbreaking discovery was made by a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota and has profound implications for disability therapy, potentially leading to ways for humans to regenerate lost body parts, according to the Independent.

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When humans lose a limb or sustain a severe injury to their spinal cord, glial cells immediately start forming scar tissue that prevents new nerves from connecting to the area.

Conversely, when axolotl suffer a similar injury, glial cells begin proliferating and allow new nerve connections to be made, setting the stage for regeneration.

This monumental difference can be explained by a set of proteins, the team of researchers discovered.

Both humans and these salamanders have a protein called c-Fos that allows regeneration to occur. But humans have another family of proteins called Juns that stop c-Fos from working its regenerative magic in humans, according to the Telegraph.

Read More: Millions of Kids with Disabilities Are Locked in Institutions

"We have discovered that despite this difference in response to injury, these animals share many of the same genes with humans,” lead researcher in the study, Dr. Karen Echeverri, told the Independent.

“This knowledge could be used to design new therapeutic targets for treating spinal cord injury or other neurodegenerative diseases,” she said.

Echeverri’s team believes that a drug or some other intervention can potentially switch off the Juns proteins to allow glial cells in humans to perform a regenerative role after injury, the Independent reports.

“Our approach allows us to identify not just the mechanisms necessary to drive regeneration in salamanders but what is happening differently in humans in responses to injury,” Echeverri told the Independent.

Read More: The Leading Disability in the World Is Depression, Says the WHO

“In addition to spinal cord regeneration, our work also focuses on other forms of regeneration including scar-free wound healing and limb regeneration,” she added.

While exciting, these possibilities remain theoretical. No practical applications targeting the Juns proteins have been attempted and it’s unknown whether this discovery can actually translate to therapies for humans or what the consequences of switching off the Juns protein would be.

Around 15% of the global population has some form of disability and 2% to 4% has a severe disability, according to the World Health Organization.

The vast majority of people with disabilities live in the developing world where health care may be inadequate, the WHO reports.

For the millions of people around the world who are unable to walk because of spinal injuries, rumors of medical breakthroughs and miraculous cures have circulated for years.

For example, several paralyzed people in Sao Paolo, Brazil, were able to walk again after an exoskeleton attached to their bodies read nerve signals coming from their brain and turned them into leg movements.

Read More: For the First Time, a Paralyzed Man Has Regained Movement

Other people have benefited from the advance of robotics that enable human movement.

The results of these efforts have been extraordinary, but only a handful of people have taken part in these procedures, and they remain too costly or otherwise inaccessible for millions of people.

In comparison, everyone has the gene that allows axolotl to recover from terrible injuries. If that can be harnessed, then a lot more people would suddenly have access to life-changing therapies.

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