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University Prof Explores Growing Limbs in the Lab

Braunhut Lecture Highlights Regenerative Research

Susan Braunhut

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Salamanders, starfish and lobsters share one thing in common ߝ their uncanny ability to spontaneously re-grow lost limbs. Now a team of researchers at UMass Lowell led by Prof. Susan Braunhut of the Biological Sciences Department is working on regenerating limbs in adult mammals, a process that only a short time ago was thought to be impossible.

The team’s findings will be the highlight of Braunhut’s talk when she delivers the first University Professor Lecture ߝ entitled “To Grow Back a Lost Human Limb: The Challenges and Promise of Regenerative Medicine” ߝ on Wednesday, April 29 at 3 p.m. at Alumni Hall on North. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Braunhut was named UMass Lowell’s University Professor in September. It is the most esteemed title bestowed on a faculty member. The honor recognizes an individual who, over a period of years, has consistently demonstrated exemplary teaching, nationally significant research, and extraordinary service to the University community.

Among her numerous accomplishments, Braunhut was recognized for her work with colleagues in developing techniques to detect cancers, and therapies to combat them. Their research also includes studying factors that control wound healing, which led to the development of a “smart” bandage.

It is this research that led to her current work on regenerating fingers in lab mice, which was supported by a two-and-a-half-year, $1.5 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency was interested in potentially applying the technique to soldiers with limb injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan. Collaborating with Braunhut on the project was Chemistry Prof. Kenneth Marx, who used bioinformatics for gene analysis.

In her lecture, Braunhut will discuss the history of wound healing and how her team uses chemicals and agents to produce a “blastema,” a mass of unspecialized progenitor cells from which new tissue develops, at the site of a mouse’s amputated finger. “Instead of forming fibrous scar tissue, our ultimate goal is to have the mouse re-grow a digit that is not only anatomically identical to the original, that is, complete with bone, muscle, cartilage, nerves, soft tissue, nail, skin and hair, but also fully functional,” she says.

Braunhut will also describe the “biodome,” a small, clear plastic device with a watertight sleeve that allows an amputation site to be immersed in various solutions to stimulate tissue growth. The device was developed in collaboration with a team headed by Prof. David Kaplan, chair of Tufts University’s Biomedical Engineering Department, as part of the DARPA consortium. Other members of the DARPA collaborative team include Dr. Stephen Badylak of the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Lorraine Gudas of the Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr. Shannon Odelberg of the University of Utah and Dr. Ellen Heber-Katz of the Wistar Institute.  

Braunhut’s term as University Professor runs from September 2008 through August 2011.

- Edwin_Aguirre