The most remarkable aspect of human biology may be that the set of genes formed in a single fertilized egg contains the code to create a fully formed adult human.
The most important discovery in modern medical science is that the embryonic code can be reactivated.
- This reactivation of embryonic gene pathways unlocks the ability to restore severely damaged or aged organs to perfect health. Even missing limbs could be regrown.
This ability to force a genetic reboot will change the practice of medicine completely.
The reason this is possible is that the entire genome—including the genes that guided the creation of all your separate parts and systems—still exists in the nucleus of your cells.
For the first eight weeks of life, these gene pathways allow individual cells to find out what they should be and do in relationship to the body. During that phase of development, any injury results in complete regeneration.
At eight weeks, when embryonic cells become fetal cells (also called adult cells), that power goes dormant. From that point forward, damaged tissues and organs scar instead of regenerating.
Nevertheless, those regenerative embryonic gene pathways still exist, even though they’re deactivated and packed away in a part of the genome called the heterochromatin.
Only a few genes in a cell are in the unpacked euchromatin, the active part of the genome. For example, the genes that make teeth are not operational in our eyes, and vice versa.
But kidney, brain, heart, and muscle cells all contain the entire genome... including those dormant embryonic genes that have the power to create perfect, youthful bodies.
Using gene engineering techniques, scientists have been able to reactivate the embryonic genes in adult cells in vitro (in test tubes and Petri dishes) for some years now.
This process also resets cells’ biological clocks, returning them to perfect health.
These genetically engineered cells are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, and they have obvious medical potential.
- Unlike adult stem cells, they have the power to communicate with the cells around them and completely repair damage instead of scarring.
Instead of copying themselves with all their accumulated damage as adult stem cells do, they go back to the embryonic blueprint to create perfect, youthful cells.
Though iPS cells prove that the embryonic genes can be turned back on even in adults, it took several years for a few key scientists to realize that it might be possible to access these developmental pathways in living creatures.
There were other clues too.
Certain animals like the Iberian ribbed newt (Pleurodeles waltl) can completely regenerate lost limbs or organs throughout their lives.
Researchers at the Swedish Karolinska Institutet sequenced the animal’s genome. The lead scientist, Professor András Simon, told Phys.org, “It will be exciting to figure out how regeneration in the adult organism reactivates embryonic genes.”
More recently, a paper in the journal Oncotarget indicated that the master switch is the so-called COX7A1 gene.
- Using an artificial intelligence (AI) program run on one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, scientists found this regenerative switch that can regrow limbs and organs, and (most important) reverse aging.
This is not an entirely new idea, though. In fact, one scientist thought of it more than a century ago.
Nobel Prize-winning biologist Thomas Hunt Morgan proposed this strategy in 1901. His book, Regeneration, made the case that embryonic healing potential exists in adult cells and can therefore be used for medical treatments.
Until recently, however, the tools didn’t exist to find the body’s regenerative “ON switch.”
This discovery has also illuminated some of the health benefits of certain drugs like rapamycin, a drug derived from a bacterium that is only found on Easter Island and that is FDA-approved as an immunosuppressant for cancer patients.
Recently, scientists discovered that administered in much smaller doses, rapamycin partially flips the embryonic switch and rejuvenates aged cells to a certain degree.
- These regenerative effects of rapamycin are well documented. It has been proven to increase health and lifespans in animals by about 20%.
But there are other new drugs that are much more effective.
Within a few years, we’ll see clinical trials of drugs that allow the body to draw upon its own embryonic blueprint to regrow severely damaged or missing organs and limbs.
Eventually, however, the technology will be used to allow full-body rejuvenation.
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