The path to stem cell cures paved with… flatworms?

Planaria like this one can regrow new body parts

At California’s stem cell agency we are focused on finding new cures for disease, but sometimes the path to cures is paved with research in animals, like, for example, flatworms.

No, seriously. One way of understanding how tissues regenerate is by studying animals whose tissues regenerate naturally. Like flatworms. Then, maybe scientists can take that information and use it to coerce our more limited human cells to regenerate like the very regenerative flatworm.

There’s a paper that came our recently in the Journal of Experimental Biology that shows just how amazing flatworms are at regenerating. The work, by Tufts researchers, is in a flatworm called Planaria. This is the same arrow-shaped worm that many people dissected in high school biology, only to watch it regrow other halves or new heads.

In the recent work–and this is not made up–the worms retained memories after being decapitated. The worms regrew their heads in 14 days and remembered how to navigate their way toward food.

All ghoulishness aside, the authors say their discovery could provide a new way of studying and developing cures for neurological diseases. They write:

“Moreover, this system is likely to have important implications for the biomedicine of stem cell-derived treatments of degenerative brain disorders in human adults.”

CIRM doesn’t fund any work in planaria, but our scientists could take what’s learned by scientists studying the lowly flatworm and apply it to disease therapies that are under development.

Amy Adams

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