Scientists want the salamander's secret: how they regenerate tissue
All organisms have the capacity to repair or regenerate tissue damage. None can do it better than salamanders or newts, which can regenerate an entire severed limb.
That feat has amazed and delighted man from the dawn of time and led to endless attempts to understand how it happens – and whether we can control it for our own purposes. An exciting new clue toward that understanding has come from a surprising source: research on the decline of cells, called cellular senescence.
Senescence is the last stage in the life of a cell. Whereas some cells simply break up or wither and die off, others transition into a zombie-like state where they can no longer divide. In this liminal phase, the cell still pumps out many different molecules that can affect its neighbors and cause low grade inflammation. Senescence is associated with many of the declining biological functions that characterize aging, such as inflammation and genomic instability.
Oddly enough, newts are one of the few species that do not accumulate senescent cells as they age, according to research over several years by Maximina Yun. A research group leader at the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and Genetics, in Dresden, Germany, Yun discovered that senescent cells were induced at some stages of regeneration of the salamander limb, “and then, as the regeneration progresses, they disappeared, they were eliminated by the immune system,” she says. “They were present at particular times and then they disappeared.”
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states.
Previous research on senescence in aging had suggested, logically enough, that applying those cells to the stump of a newly severed salamander limb would slow or even stop its regeneration. But Yun stood that idea on its head. She theorized that senescent cells might also play a role in newt limb regeneration, and she tested it by both adding and removing senescent cells from her animals. It turned out she was right, as the newt limbs grew back faster than normal when more senescent cells were included.
Senescent cells added to the edges of the wound helped the healthy muscle cells to “dedifferentiate,” essentially turning back the developmental clock of those cells into more primitive states, which could then be turned into progenitors, a cell type in between stem cells and specialized cells, needed to regrow the muscle tissue of the missing limb. “We think that this ability to dedifferentiate is intrinsically a big part of why salamanders can regenerate all these very complex structures, which other organisms cannot,” she explains.
Yun sees regeneration as a two part problem. First, the cells must be able to sense that their neighbors from the lost limb are not there anymore. Second, they need to be able to produce the intermediary progenitors for regeneration, , to form what is missing. “Molecularly, that must be encoded like a 3D map,” she says, otherwise the new tissue might grow back as a blob, or liver, or fin instead of a limb.
Another recent study, this time at the Mayo Clinic, provides evidence supporting the role of senescent cells in regeneration. Looking closely at molecules that send information between cells in the wound of a mouse, the researchers found that senescent cells appeared near the start of the healing process and then disappeared as healing progressed. In contrast, persistent senescent cells were the hallmark of a chronic wound that did not heal properly. The function and significance of senescence cells depended on both the timing and the context of their environment.
The paper suggests that senescent cells are not all the same. That has become clearer as researchers have been able to identify protein markers on the surface of some senescent cells. The patterns of these proteins differ for some senescent cells compared to others. In biology, such physical differences suggest functional differences, so it is becoming increasingly likely there are subsets of senescent cells with differing functions that have not yet been identified.
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes.
Scientists initially thought that senescent cells couldn’t play a role in regeneration because they could no longer reproduce, says Anthony Atala, a practicing surgeon and bioengineer who leads the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina. But Yun’s study points in the other direction. “What this paper shows clearly is that these cells have the potential to be involved in tissue regeneration [in newts]. The question becomes, will these cells be able to do the same in humans.”
As our knowledge of senescent cells increases, Atala thinks we need to embrace a new analogy to help understand them: humans in retirement. They “have acquired a lot of wisdom throughout their whole life and they can help younger people and mentor them to grow to their full potential. We're seeing the same thing with these cells,” he says. They are no longer putting energy into their own reproduction, but the signaling molecules they secrete “can help other cells around them to regenerate.”
There are disagreements within the research community as to whether newts have acquired their regenerative capacity through a unique evolutionary change, or if other animals, including humans, retain this capacity buried somewhere in their genes. If so, it seems that our genes are unable to express this ability, perhaps as part of a tradeoff in acquiring other traits. It is a fertile area of research.
Dedifferentiation is likely to become an important process in the field of regenerative medicine. One extreme example: a lab has been able to turn back the clock and reprogram adult male skin cells into female eggs, a potential milestone in reproductive health. It will be more difficult to control just how far back one wishes to go in the cell's dedifferentiation – part way or all the way back into a stem cell – and then direct it down a different developmental pathway. Yun is optimistic we can learn these tricks from newts.
A growing field of research is using drugs called senolytics to remove senescent cells and slow or even reverse disease of aging.
“Senolytics are great, but senolytics target different types of senescence,” Yun says. “If senescent cells have positive effects in the context of regeneration, of wound healing, then maybe at the beginning of the regeneration process, you may not want to take them out for a little while.”
“If you look at pretty much all biological systems, too little or too much of something can be bad, you have to be in that central zone” and at the proper time, says Atala. “That's true for proteins, sugars, and the drugs that you take. I think the same thing is true for these cells. Why would they be different?”
Our growing understanding that senescence is not a single thing but a variety of things likely means that effective senolytic drugs will not resemble a single sledge hammer but more a carefully manipulated scalpel where some types of senescent cells are removed while others are added. Combinations and timing could be crucial, meaning the difference between regenerating healthy tissue, a scar, or worse.
The naked mole rat won’t win any beauty contests, but it could possibly win in the talent category. Its superpower: fighting the aging process to live several times longer than other animals its size, in a state of youthful vigor.
It’s believed that naked mole rats experience all the normal processes of wear and tear over their lifespan, but that they’re exceptionally good at repairing the damage from oxygen free radicals and the DNA errors that accumulate over time. Even though they possess genes that make them vulnerable to cancer, they rarely develop the disease, or any other age-related disease, for that matter. Naked mole rats are known to live for over 40 years without any signs of aging, whereas mice live on average about two years and are highly prone to cancer.
Now, these remarkable animals may be able to share their superpower with other species. In August, a study provided what may be the first proof-of-principle that genetic material transferred from one species can increase both longevity and healthspan in a recipient animal.
There are several theories to explain the naked mole rat’s longevity, but the one explored in the study, published in Nature, is based on the abundance of large-molecule high-molecular mass hyaluronic acid (HMM-HA).
A small molecule version of hyaluronic acid is commonly added to skin moisturizers and cosmetics that are marketed as ways to keep skin youthful, but this version, just applied to the skin, won’t have a dramatic anti-aging effect. The naked mole rat has an abundance of the much-larger molecule, HMM-HA, in the chemical-rich solution between cells throughout its body. But does the HMM-HA actually govern the extraordinary longevity and healthspan of the naked mole rat?
To answer this question, Dr. Vera Gorbunova, a professor of biology and oncology at the University of Rochester, and her team created a mouse model containing the naked mole rat gene hyaluronic acid synthase 2, or nmrHas2. It turned out that the mice receiving this gene during their early developmental stage also expressed HMM-HA.
The researchers found that the effects of the HMM-HA molecule in the mice were marked and diverse, exceeding the expectations of the study’s co-authors. High-molecular mass hyaluronic acid was more abundant in kidneys, muscles and other organs of the Has2 mice compared to control mice.
In addition, the altered mice had a much lower incidence of cancer. Seventy percent of the control mice eventually developed cancer, compared to only 57 percent of the altered mice, even after several techniques were used to induce the disease. The biggest difference occurred in the oldest mice, where the cancer incidence for the Has2 mice and the controls was 47 percent and 83 percent, respectively.
With regard to longevity, Has2 males increased their lifespan by more than 16 percent and the females added 9 percent. “Somehow the effect is much more pronounced in male mice, and we don’t have a perfect answer as to why,” says Dr. Gorbunova. Another improvement was in the healthspan of the altered mice: the number of years they spent in a state of relative youth. There’s a frailty index for mice, which includes body weight, mobility, grip strength, vision and hearing, in addition to overall conditions such as the health of the coat and body temperature. The Has2 mice scored lower in frailty than the controls by all measures. They also performed better in tests of locomotion and coordination, and in bone density.
Gorbunova’s results show that a gene artificially transferred from one species can have a beneficial effect on another species for longevity, something that had never been demonstrated before. This finding is “quite spectacular,” said Steven Austad, a biologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who was not involved in the study.
Just as in lifespan, the effects in various organs and systems varied between the sexes, a common occurrence in longevity research, according to Austad, who authored the book Methuselah’s Zoo and specializes in the biological differences between species. “We have ten drugs that we can give to mice to make them live longer,” he says, “and all of them work better in one sex than in the other.” This suggests that more attention needs to be paid to the different effects of anti-aging strategies between the sexes, as well as gender differences in healthspan.
According to the study authors, the HMM-HA molecule delivered these benefits by reducing inflammation and senescence (cell dysfunction and death). The molecule also caused a variety of other benefits, including an upregulation of genes involved in the function of mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells. These mechanisms are implicated in the aging process, and in human disease. In humans, virtually all noncommunicable diseases entail an acceleration of the aging process.
So, would the gene that creates HMM-HA have similar benefits for longevity in humans? “We think about these questions a lot,” Gorbunova says. “It’s been done by injections in certain patients, but it has a local effect in the treatment of organs affected by disease,” which could offer some benefits, she added.
“Mice are very short-lived and cancer-prone, and the effects are small,” says Steven Austad, a biologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “But they did live longer and stay healthy longer, which is remarkable.”
As for a gene therapy to introduce the nmrHas2 gene into humans to obtain a global result, she’s skeptical because of the complexity involved. Gorbunova notes that there are potential dangers in introducing an animal gene into humans, such as immune responses or allergic reactions.
Austad is equally cautious about a gene therapy. “What this study says is that you can take something a species does well and transfer at least some of that into a new species. It opens up the way, but you may need to transfer six or eight or ten genes into a human” to get the large effect desired. Humans are much more complex and contain many more genes than mice, and all systems in a biological organism are intricately connected. One naked mole rat gene may not make a big difference when it interacts with human genes, metabolism and physiology.
Still, Austad thinks the possibilities are tantalizing. “Mice are very short-lived and cancer-prone, and the effects are small,” he says. “But they did live longer and stay healthy longer, which is remarkable.”
As for further research, says Austad, “The first place to look is the skin” to see if the nmrHas2 gene and the HMM-HA it produces can reduce the chance of cancer. Austad added that it would be straightforward to use the gene to try to prevent cancer in skin cells in a dish to see if it prevents cancer. It would not be hard to do. “We don’t know of any downsides to hyaluronic acid in skin, because it’s already used in skin products, and you could look at this fairly quickly.”
“Aging mechanisms evolved over a long time,” says Gorbunova, “so in aging there are multiple mechanisms working together that affect each other.” All of these processes could play a part and almost certainly differ from one species to the next.
“HMM-HA molecules are large, but we’re now looking for a small-molecule drug that would slow it’s breakdown,” she says. “And we’re looking for inhibitors, now being tested in mice, that would hinder the breakdown of hyaluronic acid.” Gorbunova has found a natural, plant-based product that acts as an inhibitor and could potentially be taken as a supplement. Ultimately, though, she thinks that drug development will be the safest and most effective approach to delivering HMM-HA for anti-aging.
In recent years, researchers of Alzheimer’s have made progress in figuring out the complex factors that lead to the disease. Yet, the root cause, or causes, of Alzheimer’s are still pretty much a mystery.
In fact, many people get Alzheimer’s even though they lack the gene variant we know can play a role in the disease. This is a critical knowledge gap for research to address because the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients don’t have this variant.
A new study provides key insights into what’s causing the disease. The research, published in Nature Communications, points to a breakdown over time in the brain’s system for clearing waste, an issue that seems to happen in some people as they get older.
Michael Glickman, a biologist at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, helped lead this research. I asked him to tell me about his approach to studying how this breakdown occurs in the brain, and how he tested a treatment that has potential to fix the problem at its earliest stages.
Dr. Michael Glickman is internationally renowned for his research on the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS), the brain's system for clearing the waste that is involved in diseases such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. He is the head of the Lab for Protein Characterization in the Faculty of Biology at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. In the lab, Michael and his team focus on protein recycling and the ubiquitin-proteasome system, which protects against serious diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, and diabetes. After earning his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley in 1994, Michael joined the Technion as a Senior Lecturer in 1998 and has served as a full professor since 2009.
Dr. Michael Glickman