This is a recurring column on early-stage research in animals or other laboratory models that has not entered the clinic yet but could have implications for future research and development of human medicines.
Holding the keys to regeneration: axolotls
A salamander with a massive genome and the ability to regenerate parts of itself could play a role in understanding human healing, researchers at Yale University have found.
The genome of the axolotl — an amphibian indigenous to Mexico — is 10 times larger than that of humans and holds the key to cell regeneration, regrowing limbs and organs after an injury.
"It regenerates almost anything after almost any injury that doesn't kill it," researcher Parker Flowers said in a report from the university.
Because the axolotl's genome is so large and contains many repeating segments, genomic sequencing is difficult to use alone as a means to discovering the genes responsible for regeneration.
To locate the particular genes, Flowers and study co-author Lucas Sanor used gene editing to mark and track several spots that were suspected to be involved in regeneration. They were able to find two genes in the axolotl's regenerating tail.
The scientists said that finding these genes in the axolotl could someday lead to similar discoveries in humans, tapping into a genetic ability to speed up the healing process.
Altered worm genes signal longer lifespan
Another small creature whose genes hold possible clues about human longevity is the nematode, a microscopic worm that scientists are using to identify pathways with the potential to dramatically increase lifespan.
Researchers at the MDI Biological Laboratory in Maine, along with teams from California and China, have found that two cellular pathways in a specific nematode called C. elegans can work together to extend the worms' lifespans by 500%.
The C. elegans nematode is commonly used as a model in aging research because many of its genes have been passed down through evolution to humans, MDI Biological Laboratory said.
The scientists genetically altered two cellular pathways — one that signals insulin production and another that affects metabolism — in the nematodes, predicting a 130% increase in lifespan based on previous research on each pathway on its own. Together, the pathways led to a 500% longer lifespan.
"The synergistic extension is really wild," study co-author Jarod Rollins from the MDI Biological Laboratory said. "The effect isn't one plus one equals two, it's one plus one equals five. Our findings demonstrate that nothing in nature exists in a vacuum; in order to develop the most effective anti-aging treatments we have to look at longevity networks rather than individual pathways."
The research was published in the online journal Cell Reports.
Nanoparticles 'eat' blood vessel plaque — from the inside
Researchers have found in a mouse study that nanoparticles can help clear blood vessels of dangerous plaque.
Tiny particles that can act like trash collectors could help clear away plaque causing blood vessel constriction, researchers from Michigan State University and Stanford University have found in a mouse study.
Nanoparticles designed as tubes are able to accumulate inside immune cells that reside within the plaque that narrows blood vessels, or atherosclerosis, and can lead to an early death. Once inside these immune cells, the tiny "Trojan horses" release a drug that spurs the cell to begin clearing away the plaque from the inside.
"We found we could stimulate the macrophages to selectively eat dead and dying cells — these inflammatory cells are precursor cells to atherosclerosis — that are part of the cause of heart attacks," lead researcher Bryan Smith of Michigan State said in a report. "We could deliver a small molecule inside the macrophages to tell them to begin eating again."
In the past, particles that induce this type of behavior in immune cells have made use of antibodies to find the right location, but because these can also harm healthy tissue and cause anemia the nanotubes might present a safer option, according to the paper published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.