The Hydractinia echinata, a small marine animal, native to Ireland, has given scientists new leads in studies of congenital defects and cancer biology as well as everlasting life.
The animal can regenerate a lost body part, clone itself and does not age. Dr Uri Frank, heading up the research at NUI Galway’s regenerative medicine institute, told the Irish Times that it “in theory - lives forever.”
On the NUI Galway website the team wrote, “It sounds like a grisly experiment, but if you chop off the head of the marine animal Hydractinia echinata it doesn’t die. Instead it re-grows a head within a few days. That power to regenerate tissue throughout its life is why SFI-funded researcher, Dr Uri Frank, believes it could offer a new model to study stem cells.”
Dr Frank explained that the tiny animal is similar to jellyfish and sea anemones. He said it is “perfect for understanding the role of stem cells in development, ageing and disease.
“Hydractinia has some stem cells which remain at an embryonic-like stage throughout its life. It sounds gruesome, but if it has its head bitten off, it simply grows another one within a few days using its embryonic or ‘pluripotent’ stem cells.
“So the potential for research is immense”, he adds.
The team discovered an unknown link between “heat-shock” proteins and a cell-signalling pathway, known as Wnt signalling, in the animal’s stem cells. Both the heat-shock proteins and Wnt signalling are known to be associated with cancer and cell growth.
“These two cellular signalling mechanisms are known to play important roles in development and disease, so they have been widely, though separately, studied. We have shown that they talk to each other, providing a new perspective for all scientists in this field.
“We found the link coincidentally - we weren’t looking for it.”
He added that Hydractinia stem cells should be “very similar to their human counterparts and studying them may provide information on human stem cells.”
“So why don’t humans keep their pluripotent cells as adults?
“It’s a good question. Keeping them in a complex body like ours is probably too dangerous, as they can easily form cancer. It’s not so much a problem in simple animals - they would probably cut a cancer off.
“The price to become complex is to lose the ability to be immortal.”