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Frankenstein’s dream brought to life as scientists say electricity could be used to regrow limbs

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  • Aberdeen  University researchers observed flatworms using electricity to regrow a  head

  • Electric  field tells growth cells where to migrate

By Sam Shead

PUBLISHED:12:51 EST, 9  September 2012| UPDATED:13:35 EST, 9 September 2012

Experiments with echoes of Frankenstein  suggest electricity could one day be used to regenerate tissue and regrow lost  limbs.

Scientists believe electric currents and  fields hold the key to major advances in tissue engineering.

In the distant future they may even help  people with severed limbs, such as victims of industrial accidents or soldiers,  to grow new arms and legs.

Electric currents and fields could one day be used to grow tissue for soldiers with severed limbs
Electric currents and fields could one day be used to  grow tissue for soldiers with severed limbs

Electrical stimulus has already shown some  success in stimulating sensory nerve regrowth in people with damaged spinal  cords.

There is also evidence that bio-electric  fields play a role in regenerating lost fingertips, especially in  children.

But the importance of electricity in wound  healing and tissue repair has been largely overlooked because of its association  with Victorian quackery and Frankenstein, according to Dr Ann Rajnicek.

‘Electricity is key; its something that has  been under-appreciated,’ she said. ‘But people still think of Frankenstein and  the Victorian age. Even when you try to sell the idea to a research funding  agency, they say ‘oh no, I’m not sure about that’.’

In Mary Shelley’s novel, electricity provides  the spark that brings Frankenstein’s monster to life.

The idea of using electricity for tissue engineering has been dismissed due to the connotations it holds with Frankenstein, according to Dr Ann RajnicekThe monster created by Frankenstein

The idea of using electricity for tissue engineering has  been dismissed  due to the connotations it holds with Mary Shelley’s  Frankenstein novel

The creature created by Frankenstein later went on to be called Frankenstein itself
The creature created by Frankenstein later went on to be  called Frankenstein itself

During the Victorian era, when the novel was  written, electricity and its biological effects gripped the public  imagination.

Electrical devices were built that were  supposed to treat all manner of ills, from depression to kidney disease and  impotence.

Macabre stage experiments were also common in  which the dead were apparently brought to life using electricity to make limbs  jerk or teeth chatter, said Dr Rajnicek.

In a show conducted in Glasgow in 1818, the  corpse of a man hung for murder suddenly sat up, causing members of the audience  to flee in terror. One man fainted.

Dr Rajnicek’s research at the University of  Aberdeen has demonstrated the effect of electricity on flatworms rather than  human corpses.

‘We’re using flatworms that multiply  asexually by spontaneous fission,’ she said. ‘The worm snaps itself in two like  an elastic band so you have one end missing a head and other missing a  tail.

Geckos have the ability to regrow their tails with a surplus of stem cells that migrate towards parts of the body that need healing
Geckos have the ability to regrow their tails with a  surplus of stem cells that migrate towards parts of the body that need  healing

‘Each half reforms, and this is  something  that has perplexed scientists for hundreds of years. How does a tail know it  needs a head or a head know it needs a tail?

‘We  believe the natural electrical field that’s associated with the wounding process  acts like a compass to tell cells where to migrate. You get a field that points  towards the wound and directs cells there.

‘We’ve also found that there’s a gradient –  the electrical field is positive but at the very tip of the head of the worm its  much less positive, so the animal has natural electrical polarity. We think the  stem cells are being directed to build either a head or tail because one end is  more positive and the other end is more negative.’

When a flatworm is cut, electricity leaks out  of the wound – and the same thing occurs in all other animals, including humans,  said Dr Rajnicek. ‘The skin [is] like a battery,’ she said.

Earmouse: Scientists managed to graft a lab grown human-like ear onto the back of a mouse
Earmouse: MIT Scientists managed to graft a lab grown  human-like ear onto the back of a mouse in 1995

In animals that regenerate limbs, such  as  flatworms and amphibians, the leakage produces an electrical  potential that  causes cells at the ‘stump’ to regress to an embryonic  state. They can then  mature into different kinds of new regenerated  cells.

By reversing the polarity of the electric  field at the wound site, Dr Rajnicek was able to produce worms with heads where  their tails should be, and vice-versa. Manipulating the field led to worms with  two heads or two tails.

The scientists know there is much more to the  story because flatworms are not completely simple creatures. They have complex  nervous systems with two parallel nerve cords and a brain, eyes, a gut, and  around 40 different cell types.

‘We are still at the early stages, but we  want to look at the genes that are switched on or off by the presence or absence  of this field,’ said Dr Rajnicek, who gave a presentation on her work at the  British Science Festival at the University of Aberdeen.

There is evidence that the leakage of  electricity from wounds aids healing in humans, she added.

In the 1980s, researchers studied cases of  children who regrew the tips of their fingers after having them sliced off in  car doors.

An American man managed to regrow the tip of his finger with a special powder after getting it caught in a model aeroplane propeller
An American man managed to regrow the tip of his finger  with a special powder after getting it caught in a model aeroplane propeller

They found that younger children healed  better, and also leaked the most current from their wounds. When the wounds were  sutured and sealed up, it prevented regeneration.

Another case in 2008 involved American Lee  Spievak who chopped half an inch off the end of a finger in the propeller of a  model aeroplane. The finger tip was lost, but Mr Spievak treated himself with a  powder obtained from a tissue engineering lab at the University of Pennsylvania  where his brother worked. The media described the regrowth of his finger tip as  a ‘medical miracle’.

Mr Spievak put his recovery down to the  powder, prepared from pigs bladder cells, which he called “pixie dust”. Dr  Rajnicek believes growth factors in the powder may have worked in conjunction  with the electrical effect of the open wound.

Covering up open wounds might help prevent  infection, but could also hinder recovery, she suggested.

She added that early work had already shown  that manipulating electricity can help repair damaged spinal cords.

A team from the University of North Texas  improved sensory nerve function in 10 patients using electrical stimulus,  although no effect was seen on motor function.

‘We’re not saying electricity is the only  thing that matters, but it is one piece of the puzzle that has been neglected,’  said Dr Rajnicek

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2200680/Frankensteins-dream-brought-life-scientists-say-electricity-used-regrow-limbs.html#ixzz262WJteD7

About Post Author

Ralph Turchiano

I have a strong affinity for the sciences which led me to create my sites. My compulsion for the past decade has been reviewing literally every peer-reviewed research article. Which can easily be validated by following my posts. To me, science is where the real news is, as it will mold our destiny beyond that of politics or economics. 😉 Please feel free to e-mail: 161803p314159@gmail.com
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