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DARPA Project on Limb Regeneration Begins


LOWELL ߝ If humans had the ability to grow back lost fingers, arms or legs, as newts and salamanders can their tails and limbs, improvements in quality of life would more than multiply as well. Now, the idea of people regenerating entire anatomical structures may be in the realm of possibilities after all, believe researchers who are encouraged by results of recent studies.
        The researchers, representing six different institutions, have formed a team and secured a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The UMass Lowell portion is $1.2 million for the first two years.
        At UML, the senior investigators are Susan Braunhut, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences, tumor cell and vascular cell expert who studies the regenerative potential of extracellular matrix; and Kenneth Marx, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Intelligent Biomaterials, who develops bioinformatics tools to analyze and model complex biological systems.
        “As a team, we’re putting together out knowledge of stem cells, tissue development and healing to investigate a mind-blowing innovation,” said Braunhut. “Causing a limb to re-grow in a non-healing adult mammal is an incredible leap forward.”
        The research groups expect that by working together they will gain a more complete understanding of the cellular and molecular processes that allow certain creatures, such as salamanders, to completely regenerate lost limbs, and be able to harness this capacity in mammals. The implications are especially evident considering the wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq include twice the number of amputees of previous conflicts and wars.
        Coordinating the team’s effort is Stephen Badylak, D.V.M., M.D., Ph.D., research professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and director of the Center for Pre-clinical Tissue Engineering. The consortium includes other senior investigators with diverse, yet complementary, research interests: leading salamander researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Utah, a specialist in mice stem cells from Cornell Medical School, and an immunologist from The Wistar Institute who has identified a ‘super-healer’ mouse line.
    Some cells in humans, such as liver cells and red blood cells, can self-renew; and embryonic stem cells can regenerate diverse tissues. But humans respond to injury with scar tissue, while salamanders instead form a blastema, a large pool of progenitor cells that will specialize and grow to form the bone, muscle, cartilage, nerves and skin of the regenerated limb.
    The team will begin with intense study of salamanders and the super-healer mouse line to develop a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms and processesߞ;to obtain a blueprintߞ;for regenerative growth. The team will then attempt to orchestrate the formation of a blastema in a non-healing mouse, where scar tissue would normally form.
    “The $1.2 million UMass Lowell secured from DARPA is great news for the University,” said Rep. Marty Meehan, who had assisted in drawing DARPA’s attention to the research at UML. “This funding will allow researchers at UMass Lowell to bring together a wealth of knowledge that could lead to major breakthroughs in regenerative medicine.  I applaud the University for a being a leader in this emerging field of study.”

UMass Lowell, a comprehensive university with special expertise in applied science and technology, is committed to educating students for lifelong success and conducting research and outreach activities that sustain the economic, environmental and social health of the region. UML offers its 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students more than 80 degree programs in the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Management, and the School of Health and Environment and the Graduate School of Education.  Visit the website at

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