In a biology lab at Loyola University New Orleans, something miraculous happened — something no scientist had seen before. Biology professor Rosalie Anderson and her undergraduate students cut a tiny hole to remove just the elbow joint of a chicken embryo’s wing. Eighteen hours later, a new joint amazingly grew back.
Their findings were featured in the Dec. 6 issue of Science, and the full scientific research published Dec. 15 in the journal Developmental Biology. Loyola senior biology major Jeffrey Coote is a co-author on that paper, as well as two Loyola biology graduates, Mariana Zapata and Daniel Frugé. Co-authors also include B. Duygu Özpolat and Ken Muneoka of Tulane University.
Chickens, unlike salamanders, typically do not regenerate amputated limbs and body parts, but Anderson and her students are discovering certain conditions where that’s possible. Anderson’s lab found that cells in the chicken embryo will actually migrate to the hole where the elbow joint once was to form a new one. Her team of Loyola undergraduate students are identifying and studying the cells and genes responsible for the phenomenon. Understanding that process could unlock clues for scientists looking to coax the human body into making new joints.
The genes important for a chicken’s development are the same genes found in humans, according to Anderson, a developmental biologist. That’s why it’s not that much of a stretch to see the possibilities of her findings and their implications for humans in the future, especially in regenerative medicine.
“The government is extremely interested in these projects because of veteran amputees,” Anderson said. Prosthetic limbs for those who are also missing joints such as a knee or elbow offer very limited mobility, according to Anderson. “But you could offer a whole new quality of life if you could restore the joint. If you can coax your own body cells into making something, you don’t have to worry about rejection issues,” Anderson said. “It’s a marvel to think about where we could go with the research that started here at Loyola.”
The research is funded by the National Institutes of Health and represents a new and novel approach to studying joint regeneration and development by using chicken embryos as the model and focusing on larger joints that are directly applicable to elbow, hip and knee joints.