The NIH Grand Opportunity grant will be used to compare genes of the axolotl salamander to mouse models of human disease and injury.

Researchers associated with the University of Florida McKnight Brain Institute’s Regeneration Project have received a $2.4 million NIH Grand Opportunity grant to study regeneration of neuronal tissue. They hope to find ways to tap unused human capacities to treat spinal cord injury, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and other neural conditions.

To this end they have begun creating genomic tools to compare the regenerative capacity of the Mexican axolotl salamander with established mouse models of human disease and injury. “The axolotl is the champion of vertebrate regeneration, with the ability to replace whole limbs and even parts of its central nervous system,” says Edward Scott, Ph.D., principal investigator for the grant and director of the McKnight Brain Institute’s program in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.

“These salamanders use many of the same body systems and genes that we do, but they have superior ability to regenerate after major injuries. We think that studying them will tell us a lot about a patient’s natural regenerative capacities after spinal cord injury and nerve cell damage.”

The team has already referenced human and mouse genes with axolotl counterparts. They have estimated that humans share about 90% of genes with the axolotl salamander.

The researchers say that it could be small but important changes in the way these genes function in an injury environment, which the salamander can use for regeneration but humans cannot. People are capable of a certain degree of regeneration, however. Humans can re-grow fingertips and even more than half of their liver. But they cannot replace whole limbs, and restoring parts of their brain and spinal cord is a daunting challenge.

As discoveries are made, more researchers will begin using the axolotl as a model for exploring regenerative techniques, the scientists believe. “Only now have new genetic, molecular, and cellular technologies as well as scientific knowledge of the salamander, mouse, and human genomes and ‘regeneromes’ risen to a level where scientists can compare system-wide responses to injury,” according to Dennis A. Steindler, Ph.D., executive director of the McKnight Brain Institute and a co-investigator on the grant.

Grand Opportunity grants are funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and are intended to support research with high short-term impact and a high likelihood of enabling growth and investment in biomedical research and healthcare delivery.

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