Regenerative medicine could reach a technological takeoff point with genetic understanding of regeneration in 2-3 years and possible human treatments in 10-20 years

Sometime in the next few decades, humans may be able to regrow a finger here, a toe there – and maybe even fresh patches of beating heart tissue.

Human hearts are among the most promising targets: “Fifteen years ago we would have said 50 years, but it could be as soon as 10 years from now,” Ken Poss, a cell biologist at Duke University, told NBC News.

Just this month, researchers from the Gladstone Institutes showed that they could turn human scar tissue into electrically conductive tissue in a lab dish by fiddling with just a few key genes.

“It’s an intriguing idea, because you could turn bad cells into good cells,” Poss explained. Among the hurdles that lie ahead: taking that technique out of the lab and applying it to living human hearts.

Young humans and young mice are able to regenerate toes. In 2010, Ken Muneoka at Tulane University showed it was possible to enhance the regenerative response in adult mice.

“We can envision using the knowledge to promote organs or tissue to grow,” Elly Tanaka, who studies regeneration in salamanders at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, told NBC News. But “it’s dangerous to say, ‘Yes, we expect to regenerate a limb,'” she added.

At the same time, Tanaka acknowledges that the field is reaching a turning point. Within the next two or three years, studies of salamander genetics should “break open a lot of possibilities,” she said.

Muneoka said future progress could well depend on how much we’re willing to spend to make the dream of human regeneration come true.

SOURCES – Gladstone Institutes, NBC News

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