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'Frankenstein' theory could spark bodies to regrow lost limbs

Experiments with echoes of 'Frankenstein' suggest electricity could one day be used to regenerate tissue and regrow lost limbs.

Scientists believe electric currents and fields hold the key to major advances in tissue engineering.

In the future, they may even help people with severed limbs to grow new arms and legs.

Electrical stimulus has already shown some success in stimulating sensory nerve regrowth in people with damaged spinal cords.

There is also evidence that bio-electric fields play a role in regenerating lost fingertips, especially in children.

But the importance of electricity in wound-healing and tissue repair has been largely overlooked because of its association with Victorian quackery, said Dr Ann Rajnicek.

"Electricity is key, it's something that has been under-appreciated," she said. "But people still think of 'Frankenstein' and the Victorian age."

Dr Rajnicek's research at the University of Aberdeen has demonstrated the effect of electricity on flatworms.

Perplexed

"We're using flatworms that multiply asexually by spontaneous fission," she said. "The worm snaps itself in two like an elastic band so you have one end missing a head and the other missing a tail.

"Each half reforms, and this is something that has perplexed scientists. How does a tail know it needs a head or a head know it needs a tail?

"We believe the natural electrical field that's associated with the wounding process acts like a compass to tell cells where to migrate. You get a field that points towards the wound and directs cells there."

When a flatworm is cut, electricity leaks out of the wound -- and the same thing occurs in all other animals, including humans, said Dr Rajnicek.

In animals that regenerate limbs, the leakage produces an electrical potential that causes cells at the "stump" to regress to an embryonic state. They can then mature into new regenerated cells.

By reversing the polarity of the electric field at the wound site, Dr Rajnicek was able to produce worms with heads where their tails should be, and vice-versa.

The scientists know there is much more to the story because flatworms are not simple creatures. They have complex nervous systems with two parallel nerve cords and a brain, eyes, a gut and around 40 different cell types.

"We are still at the early stages, but we want to look at the genes that are switched on or off by the presence or absence of this field," said Dr Rajnicek, who gave a presentation on her work at the British Science Festival at the University of Aberdeen.

Irish Independent