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Is rapid-healing in humans a possibility?

Can we heal like Wolverine or Deadpool in real life?

It happens every time. When we see Wolverine, Deadpool, Dorian Grey or Nagraj heal themselves in no time, we cannot help but wish us regular humans had the same powers too. Imagine, any cut, any bruise healed in seconds – even entire limbs growing back from Stumps! Sadly, much like most fictional powers we’ve desired for ages, accelerated healing has mostly been the stuff of fiction. Or so we would believe. Turns out, theoretically, accelerated healing is not far-fetched at all. In fact, it exists out there in nature! And if recent research is to be believed, we could be on the verge of unlocking it for ourselves. But first, a little background – about salamanders.

Super-salamander

It isn’t hard to observe that we already have differential rates of healing, even within the human species. People suffering from immunodeficiencies take much longer to heal even from small cuts and wounds than a regular person. On the other hand, people who work out regularly, or even have higher levels of certain hormones, heal faster from bruises, impacts and abrasions. Looking beyond humans, though, brings up a whole different scene – one that is way more accelerated and capable.

Axolotls – these cute salamanders are nature’s super healers

Some species in nature have unlimited regenerative capabilities. The group of amphibians known as salamanders, that includes newts and axolotls can regrow entire organs after an amputation and even replace crucial organs such as the brain or the heart! Makes you think, if some animals can do this, why can’t all? That’s because regeneration isn’t a good survival strategy. It takes longer than, say, the immediate closure of an open wound through scarring – which is essential to avoid infections or bleeding out. Overall, scarring – the quick, rough way of dealing with wounds – wins most of the time.

Scars? What Scars?

From where we stand today, the first goal in the direction of accelerated healing is less scar formation. Scar tissues are different from regular tissues in the sense that they are formed by side-by-side arrangements of collagen fibres as compared to the weaves in normal tissues. Think of it like stitches holding a fabric together. This is easy to do but leaves a mark, and is not as strong as regular tissue.

People who work out regularly heal faster from bruises, impacts and abrasions

To replace scar formation, scientists have come up with several approaches to speed up the regenerative process. We must understand that this happens anyways for most scars, except ones that result in a significant loss of tissues. The process involves initial healing through clotting, then further increase in something known as growth factors (GFs). These growth factors, if increased in quantity and deployed at the correct places, can actually make wounds heal and close faster without leaving a scar.

The methods

The use of platelet-rich plasma and platelet rich fibrin, both derived from whole blood, have proven to be beneficial in accelerating healing. In fact, they are used in some branches of medicine, including dentistry. Recently, in a few studies, they’ve even proven their efficacy towards treating ulcers. Atrophic scars like the ones left behind by acne and measles can be healed better using this process too. What remains is the standardisation of the method.

Another technique that has shown promise is the use of biomaterials and tissue engineering. The use of amniotic membranes or collagen sheets not only speeds up healing from burn wounds, it also reduces things like itching and pain in the duration of the healing. Even the scars are less visible. Microbial cellulose and electrospun nanofibrous dressings are other alternative materials being used to achieve similar results. At this point, researchers have decided to take it one step further by incorporating drugs and bioactive compounds to accelerate it even further.

Stem cell technology has shown better rates of healing than the natural process

One of the leading combinations in this area is ginsenoside Rg3-loaded electrospun poly (lactic-co-glycolic acid) fibrous membranes (yeah, that is a mouthful). Even Norfloxacin-loaded collagen seems to be effective in reducing scarring and increasing cell growth for wound closure. Stem cell technology and bioengineered skin substitutes have shown better rates of healing than the natural process. Despite that, none of this is really the kind of accelerated healing we have seen in fiction – it is not even close, either in speed or in capabilities to regenerate without external influence. What would it take for us to achieve that? The key, quite interestingly, could lie with a certain Merc with a Mouth and the work of a certain 19th-century fictional doctor.

True regeneration

If you do know about Deadpool, you must be familiar with the regenerative powers that landed him on the subtitle for this article. Deadpool can regrow entire limbs overnight – and his ability has been found to be scientifically accurate! The human body takes about 18 years to reach its full size and even nature’s super healers, the salamanders, take about a few months to regrow a lost body part. So how does Deadpool do it? By temporarily stopping what stops cells from growing uncontrollably – yes, the body has to tell itself to stop growing.

How does the Merc with a mouth heal so fast and so effectively?

Without proto-oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes in the human body, cells would and do, grow without check, leading to conditions like cancer. According to stem cell biologists, tumour suppressor genes can also selectively deactivate genes to promote tissue regeneration. It is these genes and oncogenes that Deadpool has immense control over, and that we need to harness for true regeneration. Essentially, Deadpool can talk to his genes. Yes, we did just tell you that you need a superpower – and before you disregard this article for being too speculative, let us tell you that another fictional character, and the work of a certain scientist, shows us exactly how to get that superpower.

Electrifying

Unlike Deadpool, not many know about the story of Frankenstein’s creature (yes, the creature was not called Frankenstein, the man who created him was). TLDR, after putting him together, Dr Frankenstein essentially used a surge of electricity and a combination of certain chemicals to bring him to life. Michael Levin’s work could be described in the same vein.

Michael Levin, riding on the shoulders of scientists from centuries ago, could unlock the key to true, rapid regeneration

Working out of his lab at Tufts University, Michael Levin has been working on establishing a link between bioelectricity and the knowledge that our cells possess about how to grow – and possibly regrow – parts of our body. And he’s achieved quite a degree of success with that. His work involved using cell wall pumps and other methods on tadpoles to ‘make the body believe’ that it can regrow a lost tail – and it did. It has led to its fair share of Frankenstein’s monsters as well – misplaced organs in frog embryos, eyes on tadpole tails, flatworms with “cat-like” heads etc. If you have a feeling that this is never going to work on complex organisms like humans, let us inform you that in 2016, Tufts University created the Paul G. Allen discovery centre and appointed him as the head, an honor that came with a $10 million grant and the possibility of $10 million more if the work shows promise after four years.

The field of accelerated, explicitly-controlled healing might be entirely resting on the work of this one person looking to create his own niche mutation of computing and genetics. As some of his contemporaries have put it, Michael Levin could someday get the Nobel Prize, or put the question of bioelectric coding, and the possibilities it holds, to rest once and for all.

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.