- James Gallagher
- Health and Science Correspondent, BBC News
Leprosy bacteria may hold the secret to safely repairing and regenerating the body, say researchers at the University of Edinburgh.
Animal experiments have revealed the bacteria’s remarkable ability to nearly double the size of healthy growing livers.
It’s a sneakily selfish act that gives the bacteria more tissue to infect.
But finding out how they do it might lead to new therapies age-defying, say scientists.
Leprosy causes disability when it infects the nerves, skin, and eyes.
Throughout history, the infected have been disowned and isolated from society.
But the bacteria that causes it, Mycobacterium leprae, has other unusual propertiesincluding the ability to perform “biological alchemy”, converting one type of body tissue into another.
A skill that fascinates scientists.
So to study it, the researchers turned to another animal that, like the human species, can contract the disease: the armadillos.
The experiments, which were conducted in the United States, showed that the infection targets the livers of armadillos.
There the bacterium performs a controlled organ sequestration to reprogram it for your own purpose.
“It was totally unexpected,” Professor Anura Rambukkana, from the University of Edinburgh’s center for regenerative medicine, told me.
The results, published in Cell Reports Medicineshowed that the size of the liver almost doubled.
Such a growth might be expected to be defective or even cancerous, but detailed analysis showed the organ to be healthy and functional, with the usual arrangement of blood vessels and bile ducts.
“It’s kind of mind-boggling,” said Professor Rambukkana. “How do they do it? There is no cell therapy that canto do that“.
It appears that leprosy rewinds the developmental clock in the liver.
Fully developed liver cells are metabolic powerhouses that have hundreds of different jobs to perform in the body.
But heThe bacteria are taking them back to an earlier stage.such as going back to being teenagers, where they can rapidly increase in number before reverting to adulthood.
By investigating the activity of different parts of the cells’ DNA, the scientists discovered a picture more like that of a much younger animal. or even a fetuswhen the liver is still forming.
But the precise details of how all this happens remain elusive.
The Nobel Prize winning research has shown that it is possible to forcibly turn back the clock to the point where cells regain the ability to become any other type of cell in the body, but doing so carries the risk of turning those cells cancerous.
“The bacteria [de la lepra] use alternative pathways,” Professor Rambukkana told me.
“Is a much safer way and they take longer to do so, so it’s a natural process.”
The hope is that the approach could be harnessed to repair the livers of people awaiting a transplant, or even to reverse some of the damage caused by aging in other parts of the body.
“The dream is to use the same bacterial strategy, to use the ingenuity of bacteria to generate new drugs for regeneration and repairsaid Professor Rambukkana.
“If you can take advantage of that, you should be able to turn that mechanism into a flat tire that you get every three months or so.”
However, all these ideas remain unproven.
Dr Darius Widera, from the University of Reading, said: “In general, the results could pave the way for new therapeutic approaches for the treatment of liver diseases such as cirrhosis.
“However, since the research has been done using armadillos as model animals, it is not clear whether these promising results can be wear to the biology of the human liver and how it can be done,” he added.
“In addition, since the bacteria used in this study cause disease, substantial refinement of the methods would be required before taking them to clinical trials.”
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The test with armadillos that revealed that the leprosy bacterium can regenerate organs – BBC News