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by Mike Zazaian September 22, 2006 - 1:00pm, 6 Comments

Close-up of a salamanderPhoto by Steven Pinker

Amid a slew of soldiers left limbless in the wake of the Iraq war, Darpa is increasing research on techniques that might someday help people grow their own limbs back.

The effort will be set up as a contest. Two teams at 10 different research facilities across the country will compete to grow the first human limb by giving humans the same regenerative properties as salamanders and other amphibians. A $7.6 Million grant will fund the efforts, with more money on the way if the initial efforts of the project are a success.

A key difference between the growth of Humans and amphibians is the Blastema, a mass of cells that can turn into any number of body parts in amphibians. Unfortunately, blastemas are absent in the human genome, which is where Darpa steps in. According to Stephen Badylak, a team leader and director of the Center for Pre-Clinical Tissue Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine:

We have to show we can do that in a mammal by 24 months — and by 48 months we have to show that we can actually regrow digits…This really is a Star Wars-type project.

Mammals are able to regenerate limbs during the fetal stage, but not thereafter. Amphibians on the other hand can regenerate several body parts if lost. Eyes, limbs, and even spinal cords are regrown if damaged or severed in amphibian bodies. Said Badylak:

We’re looking for what genes get turned on and off to make one regenerative and one not. We can regenerate as a fetus. We know the potential is there, but it’s a matter of unlocking that potential.

[via Wired]