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Can electricity bring tissue back to life, Frankenstein-style?

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10th Sep 2012
Press Association   all articles by this author
Photo: “Frankenstein” (1931)

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.

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

But the importance of electricity in wound healing and tissue repair has been largely overlooked because of its association with Victorian quackery and Frankenstein, according to Dr Ann Rajnicek (PhD).

In Mary Shelley's novel, electricity provides the spark that brings Frankenstein's monster to life.

During the Victorian era electricity and its biological effects gripped the public imagination, with many electrical devices built that were supposed to treat all manner of ills, from depression to kidney disease and impotence.

Dr Rajnicek’s research at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, has demonstrated the effect of electricity on flatworms which multiply asexually by spontaneous fission.

"The worm snaps itself in two like an elastic band so you have one end missing a head and other missing a tail,” Dr Rajnicek said.

"Each half reforms, and this is something that has perplexed scientists for hundreds of years. 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.

"We've also found that there's a gradient - the electrical field is positive but at the very tip of the head of the worm it's much less positive, so the animal has natural electrical polarity.

“We think the stem cells are being directed to build either a head or tail because one end is more positive and the other end is more negative."

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

In animals that regenerate limbs, such as flatworms and amphibians, the leakage produces an electrical potential that causes cells at the "stump" to regress to an embryonic state. They can then mature into different kinds of new regenerated cells.

In the 1980s, researchers studied cases of children who regrew the tips of their fingers after having them sliced off in car doors.

They found that younger children healed better, and also leaked the most current from their wounds. When the wounds were sutured and sealed up, it prevented regeneration.

"We're not saying electricity is the only thing that matters, but it is one piece of the puzzle that has been neglected," she said.

"Will we ever be able to regrow limbs? I can't say yes or no. It's a hope, a dream. We'll probably get there but it will take a long time."

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