Dr. Tanja Dominko, associate professor in WPI's Department of Biology and Biotechnology and a member of the WPI Bioengineering Institute, is the principal investigator for the NIH-funded project. She also oversaw the work funded by DARPA as president of the Worcester biomedical company CellThera, which was a member of a multi-institution team led by researchers at Tulane University. In 2006, CellThera signed an agreement with WPI to pursue its portion of the DARPA work jointly with researchers at the university.
The goal of the first phase of the DARPA project was to induce the formation of blastema-like cells at an injury site in a mammal. A blastema is a ball of undifferentiated cells that in amphibians forms from cells that remain at the site of an amputation. It is capable of regrowing the missing limb by forming all of the required tissue typesskin, muscle, bone, connective, and nerve. Mammals cannot generate blastemas, but instead heal injuries by forming scar tissue.
In their portion of the DARPA project, the WPI/CellThera researchers attempted to activate genes within the mammalian genome that are characteristic of pluripotent cellsundifferentiated cells that can grow into multiple tissue types. Stem cells are examples of pluripotent cells. They were also able to induce human skin cells to become pluripotent, suggesting that humans may have the ability to form blastemas. To accomplish this, the team placed the cells in a lab dish and exposed them to an extract from the eggs of the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis). In the past, this extract had been shown to activate at least one gene specific to stem cells.
In the NIH project, the team led by Dominko will extend the DARPA work by conducting a compre
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Worcester Polytechnic Institute