Stem Cell Discovery: New Research Could Help Humans Regrow Fingers [STUDY]

By iScienceTimes Staff on June 13, 2013 5:19 PM EDT

fingers
A discovery involving stem cells in the nail bed could lead to the regrowth of fingers in humans. (Photo: Flickr: narciss)

Humans and other mammals are able to regrow the tips of their fingers and toes after amputation. Now new research tells us how stem cells in the nails, surprisingly, play a role in the regrowth.

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In a study of mice, published in the journal Nature, scientists found that stem cells that the base of toenails and fingernails help not only nails to regrow, but the tips and bones of fingers and toes as well. 

"We at least partly retain the mechanisms that operate limb regeneration in amphibians," said Mayumi Ito, a New York University researcher who worked on the study. "Knowing more about how nail epidermal cells induce digit-tip regeneration may provide direct clues to extend our ability for regeneration."

In both mice and humans, amputated fingers and toes will regrow as long as stem cells in the nail bed aren't lost when the finger or toe is amputated. Ito and his team wanted to know why it was that the nail itself seemed to be the crucial factor in whether a finger or toe would regenerate.  

Ito and his team amputated toes in two groups of mice. One group was made up of normal mice, while the other group had been given a drug that prevented them from growing new nail cells.

After observing the mice for five weeks, the normal mice had regrown their toes and toenails. The second group of mice, however, didn't regrow their nails--or toe bones.

Ito and his team discovered a group of self-renewing stem cells in the nail bed. These stem cells, the team found, rely on proteins called the "Wnt signaling network" to regenerate fingertip bone. The proteins that make up the Wnt network are the same proteins that are largely responsible for both hair growth and tissue regeneration.

So when Ito's researchers blocked the Wnt network in mice, the nail and bone did not grow back, as would normally be the case.

The researchers also found that they were able to manipulate the Wnt pathway, stimulating bone and tissue regeneration just beyond the fingertip.

"This is encouraging because the similarities give us hope that we will be able to induce human regeneration in the not-too-distant future," said Ken Muneoka, a molecular biologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, who wasn't involved in the study.

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