Although the findings cannot yet be fully utilized by humans, scientists have unlocked the key to limb regeneration — vitamins. After three decades of research, scientists have finally discovered how some animals can regenerate amputated limbs or damaged organs. Vitamin A was found to be the crucial nutrient that can activate the necessary genes for regeneration through the creation of retinoic acid.
Retinoic acid is produced by humans and other animals from vitamin A, and was previously only thought to play a moderate role in the regeneration process. It has even been shown that pregnant women who do not optimize their vitamin A levels can have underdeveloped fetuses.
Gerrit Begemann, lead researcher at Konstanz, told The Local: ‘It is a huge success for us. Up to now, no-one has really looked into what the actual function of this acid is.’
According to scientists, the discovery will not be applicable to humans for quite some time. This is due to the fact that humans cannot regenerate tissue, whereas limb-regenerating animals like the zebrafish heavily rely on tissue rebuilding. In fact, before a zebrafish regenerates a lost fin, the wound is closed with multiple layers of tissue. The cells beneath the stump then lose their identity and form what is known as blastema.
Thanks to a special genetic trick, the zebrafish utilizes the retinoic acid to control the formation of blastema, highlighting its essential role in the process. The animal is therefore able to produce a store of cells that can subsequently rebuild the fin.
‘I wish I could say there is some medical application,’ said Dr Begemann. ‘The problem is humans can’t regenerate tissue. And at the moment we don’t understand enough about why not. Ultimately we want to know why.’
The research was conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Konstanz in southern Germany, where researchers hope to extend their research to human applications.