UK Research: Clues to Organ Regeneration

Contact: Ralph Derickson

Photo of Stephen Randal Voss holding a salamander
Stephen Randal Voss

Photo of salamander
Salamander

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“Clearly, there is a lot of interest in the regeneration of tissues, and tissue repair in organisms is within reach. However, we are a long way from understanding how to coax the human body into regenerating complex body parts after injury or disease.”

-- Stephen Randal Voss,
assistant professor,
Dept. of Biological Sciences,
UK College of Arts and Sciences

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 28, 2004) -- Collaborative research at the University of Kentucky and the University of California, Irvine, involving the genetic structure of salamanders might offer clues about regeneration of living tissue.

“Clearly, there is a lot of interest in the regeneration of tissues, and tissue repair in organisms is within reach,” said Stephen Randal Voss, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the UK College of Arts and Sciences. “However, we are a long way from understanding how to coax the human body into regenerating complex body parts after injury or disease,” he said. Voss is hoping that powerful genetic approaches and an atypical research organism will reveal clues about regeneration in humans.

Voss and David Gardiner, a research professor of biology at UC-Irvine, are engaged in an extensive research project funded by the National Science Foundation to characterize genes that are expressed during limb regeneration in a Mexican salamander called the Axolotl (named for an Aztec god). Salamanders can regenerate complex body parts like a tail or a leg, but a couple hundred years of study has revealed relatively little about this amazing process.

“In some ways, we know more about their early development than we do about our own,” said Voss. “They make huge translucent eggs and you can watch them mature with a magnifying glass.” But like a lot of early research organisms, Axolotls fell out of favor when science turned to organisms with fast generation times that could be easily propagated in the laboratory.

However, with the recent advent of tools that can be used to rapidly characterize all of the genes in any organism, many traditional research models like the Axolotl are being re-examined, with the hope that novel insights will be gained about human health and disease. “When salamander regeneration occurs,” Voss said, “certain genes within the salamander are turned on and others are turned off.”

As has been discovered recently for other vertebrates like fish, chicken, mice and humans, there are probably around 35,000 genes in a salamander. From this pool, Voss and Gardner plan to identify important regeneration genes from the Axolotl using DNA microchip analysis, a high-tech method that can examine the behavior of thousands of genes at the same time. In preparation for the study, some 45,000 salamander gene fragments have been sequenced, with most of the work performed at a robotic workstation in Voss’ laboratory.

“Once the key genes involved in regeneration have been identified, they can be sequenced in full and compared with those in other animals, including humans,” said Voss. “We are very excited about the next few years. I have a great group of people in my lab and our department has some of the finest equipment in the country for pursuing questions of this nature.”

Voss grew up in North and South Carolina. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Francis Marion University, a master’s in biology from Western Carolina University, and a doctorate in zoology from Clemson University. He did his postdoctoral work in evolution/ecology at the University of California, Davis.

Voss’ research is funded by three different sources. In 2001, he was awarded a $500,000, five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Research grant and a five-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. This past December, he was awarded a $300,000, three-year grant from the Kentucky Spinal Cord Head Injury Research Trust to look at spinal cord regeneration.


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