It was an ordinary study, on autoimmunity on mice, when two researchers, Ellen Heber-Katz and Lise Clark, noticed something strange – the holes they had punched in the mouse ears to distinguish one animal from the other had closed. The ears healed completely, without any scar tissue. Intrigued, the researchers set aside their original research to pick up the study of regeneration in mice.
Some species, like worms and salamanders, can regrow damaged organs, but mammals generally cannot. Some organs, such as the liver, do regenerate; but most organs, if damaged, are replaced by scar tissue, which can never regain the function of the lost tissue. For example, after an infarction (heart attack) the damaged cells do not grow back, and the function of that area of the heart is permanently lost. Yet the mouse tissue that formed in the ear holes was perfectly functional in every respect.
Upon further study, the researchers discovered these mice can also regrow cartilage in joints and regenerate amputated digits, functions had never before been documented in mammals. It became apparent that the superpower these mice possessed came about because of a genetic mutation – they lacked a gene, p21, that generally controls cell division. Lack of this gene apparently causes certain cells to revert to less mature stem cells – that is, cells that are capable of growing into any form, a feature that adult cells generally lack.
We already possess the technology for genetic engineering, to remove faulty genes and replace them with functional ones. But the day is still far off that we can use these tools to replace damaged organs or regrow amputated limbs.
Or is it? The rapid changes of the past century or so makes us reluctant to place any limitations on the power of science. One thing is certain – all these advances bring us closer to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Geulah, when all illnesses will be healed and death will be eradicated forever. Will this be through scientific means, or by a miraculous cure above nature? That remains to be seen.
However, as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wrote in the Zohar, in this generation we see an outpouring of the “upper waters,” the wisdom of the Torah, as well as the “lower waters,” secular and scientific wisdom. Both types of wisdom will work synergistically for the benefit of mankind. With advances of technology we will know how to heal devastating diseases and bring greater prosperity to mankind. But the wisdom of Torah will guide us in the application of these technologies and the inevitable moral and ethical pitfalls. This will ensure that technology will be used to enhance our wellbeing and service of G-d, the ultimate purpose of the Messianic era.
Based on Moisse, K (2010) Case Closed: A Fluky Finding Raises Hopes for Mending Wounds. Scientific American, March 23.