A fountain-of-youth gene may hold the key to faster healing of injuries and damage caused by degenerative diseases, scientists say.
The gene is thought to provide one explanation for why animals recover from tissue injury much more easily when they are young.
Known as Lin28a, the gene is highly active in embryos but dormant in adults. Scientists found that "waking up" the gene in adult mice accelerated the regrowth of hair and the healing of ear and paw injuries.
They believe it may in future be possible to simulate the gene's effect with drugs.
"It sounds like science fiction, but Lin28a could be part of a healing cocktail that gives adults the superior tissue repair seen in juvenile animals," said US study leader Dr George Daley, from Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
The gene is "evolutionary conserved" – it is found across the animal kingdom in insects, amphibians, fish and mammals, including humans.
Re-activating Lin28a in a genetically engineered strain of adult mouse stimulated cell proliferation and migration, both essential for tissue repair.
To test the healing effect of Lin28a, digits were amputated from the paws of anaesthetised mice. Digit regrowth was significantly enhanced when the gene was active.
In another experiment, scientists measured how fast small holes punched into the animals' ears healed over.