Research at the University of Utah has pinpointed specific genes in worms that appear to trigger nerve re-generation, and make old worms behave like younger friskier worms when the genes are over-expressed.
"One of the coolest things is we can improve regeneration," Nix says. "We originally looked at loss of this gene, dlk-1. The loss blocks regeneration. We can cut the nerve in these mutants and they don't regenerate. So we see worms with nerve stumps that don't do anything. But when we overproduce dlk-1 make an excess amount of it then we see an improvement in regeneration."
Jorgensen an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute says that "normally, young worms regenerate really well; old worms don't regenerate at all. What we can do by overexpressing dlk-1 is make old worms regenerate like young worms."
The chain of events the researchers identified as playing an essential role in nerve regeneration is known as a "MAP kinase pathway." Various MAP kinases play roles in cell division, response to stress, and cell specialization, Jorgensen says.
The pathway discovered in the new study "is unique in that it is not used by the nervous system during normal embryo development, yet it is absolutely required for regeneration," Bastiani says. "Most of us believed that virtually everything we found in regeneration also would be involved in development. So it is surprising."
He says while the dlk-1 gene is the most obvious target for new drugs to stimulate nerve regeneration, other genes in the pathway also could be potential targets. _ GEN
Humans possess the same sets of genes that were studied in worms. It remains to be proven whether the genes have the same effect in humans for nerve regeneration, as in worms.