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Immortal ‘Snail Fur’ may lead to Cancer Research Breakthroughs / Regenerates and Does Not biologically age

Hydractinia echinata on the carapace of a hermit crab.
Hydractinia echinata on the carapace of a hermit crab.

A marine hydroid common off the coasts of Ireland and Britain has shown remarkable regeneration properties which effectively allow it to live forever, and researchers hope studying it will garner new revelations which can be applied to stem cell biology.

Hydractinia echinata, also sometimes known as snail fur because of the fuzzy appearance it gives the surfaces where it colonizes, is an organism related to jellyfish and and sea anemones. It tends to accumulate on the shells of other marine creatures such as hermit crabs and sea snails.

Uri Frank, who specializes in hydractinia research at the National University of Ireland at Galway, told the Irish Times that hydractinia have the power to regenerate any lost body part, can clone themselves and do not biologically age.

These remarkable attributes make the tiny creatures “perfect for understanding the role of stem cells in development, aging and disease,” Frank told the Irish Times.

“Hydractinia has some stem cells which remain at an embryonic-like stage throughout its life. It sounds gruesome, but if it has its head bitten off, it simply grows another one within a few days using its embryonic or ‘pluripotent’ stem cells,” Frank said, adding, “the potential for research is immense.”

Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to transform in to any cell type, which has proven to be of great interest to researchers studying congenital defects and the biology of cancer.

Frank and his team an NUI Galway have discovered a previously unknown link between two genetic signalling  mechanisms: heat-shock proteins, which function as a sort of intra-cellular chaperone for other proteins, and a cell signalling pathway known as Wnt signalling which aids in governing basic cell activity. Both heat-shock proteins and Wnt signalling are known to be associated with cell growth and cancer.

“These two cellular signalling mechanisms are known to play important roles in development and disease, so they have been widely, though separately, studied. We have shown that they talk to each other, providing a new perspective for all scientists in this field,” Frank told the Times.

By further studying the immortal hydractina, the stem cells of which Frank believes should be similar to human stem cells, the researchers hope to gain even more information which may prove useful in future cancer studies.

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