The Future of Treatment for Lost Limbs

For most patients who have lost a limb, the best they can hope for is a prosthetic replacement. While prosthetic replacements are getting more advanced all the time, they still aren’t as good as a human flesh and blood limb. Another option that is becoming feasible nowadays is the use of a transplant. Currently hand transplants are the only major appendage that have been transplanted, but in the future it may be possible to transplant entire limbs.

The big drawback with a transplant is that it puts the patient on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their life. As a potentially dangerous side effect, this compromises their immune system paving the way for serious infections or various types of cancer.your_new_hand

So a prosthetic limb isn’t good enough, and a transplant, when it becomes possible to perform one, will leave the patient with a lifelong dependence on anti-rejection drugs. It seems like a talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place. But what if there were a third option? What if instead of replacing a lost limb we found a way to get the human body to regenerate it by itself? While this sounds like the stuff of comic books and science fiction movies, the reality is that this may be getting closer to reality than you could imagine.

To understand how it may be possible to get the human body to regenerate missing limbs you need to have a basic understanding of genetics and evolution. Recently scientists began to sequence the DNA of animals that could regenerate limbs. What they found was that the genes that allowed this to happen were first appeared over 400 million years ago. Since people are descended from the same common ancestors from that time period as most other animals, it means that we could already have the gene that we need to be able to regrow limbs.

The challenge for scientists now will be to figure out how to get that gene to activate in humans. If you know anything about genetics, you probably know that there is a great deal of our own genetic code that doesn’t do anything. These genes are carried on from generation to generation, but they are no longer expressed.

While this is very promising research, it’s still likely to be many years before this avenue of treatment becomes a real option for patients.