One of my favorite comic book superheroes of all time is the Marvel Comics character Wolverine. I was first introduced to him back when I was a kid, thanks to the X-Men cartoon. The guy was just cool. Short, gruff but with a heart of gold, struggling with having lost all of his memories and having been surgically altered into some sort of living weapon as well as possessing a bestial, savage fury that he struggled to keep in check. His powers included animal-like senses, longevity (the guys looks the same now as he did back when he fought in World War II), and heightened healing abilities called a “healing factor.” Sure, he is best known for his unbreakable metal skeleton and retractable claws that protrude from the back of his hands, but these were from the experimentation, not his natural mutation – though the claws, in various stories, are a mutation, but I will not go into that further. Wolverine’s healing factor is what makes him stand out among many other comic characters. This is the guy who takes a beating but always gets back up again, no matter how close to death he was mere moments ago. His greatest complaint; that his healing factor keeps him from ever getting drunk. Curse those regenerating kidneys.
Researchers at Harvard Stem Cell Institute have recently discovered something fascinating about kidney regeneration. Namely, that it does not work the way they had always assumed it did. Until now, it was always assumed that a person’s kidneys were able to heal due to scattered populations of stem cells that would respond to trauma. These stem cells would then become whatever sort of cell was needed into order to fix the damage. This is not so. According to HSCI Kidney Diseases Program Leader Benjamin Humphreys, while these pockets of stem cells do exist in the kidneys, they are not what is responsible for the kidney’s ability to regenerate. Rather, upon injury, mature kidney cells will actually multiply and regress into a less stable version of themselves so that they can better replace the damaged tissue. What this means is that the structure of some mature cells may not be as concrete as many have long believed, but instead there are cells that hold a memory of what they used to be and have the ability to become that again in a sort of emergency revitalization process. This suggests a model by which some cells are actually able to reprogram themselves in order to compensate for injury. Humphreys hopes to use this new found discovery to create new therapeutic methods for kidney repair, such as being able to target and activate this process in kidney cells, enhancing the body’s already impressive ability to recovery from injury.
Sure, this will not give us an X-Man’s level of nigh-immortality, but this new understanding of how the kidney is able to repair itself is a great step forward in finding ways to treat the effects of kidney disease and damage.
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