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A nervy strategy for transplants

Tweaking electric charges helps rewire transplanted organs at least in


tadpoles
by Stephen Ornes
8:00am, December 24, 2014

The tendrils in pink are nerve axons reaching out from a transplanted eye. The cells in green have electric
charges on their membranes that keep the axons from growing.
By DOUGLAS J. BLACKISTON
What has three eyes, breathes through gills, and may help scientists spot new ways to improve
organ transplants? An unusual tadpole living in a lab near Boston, Mass.
Researchers removed an eye from one tadpoles head and attached it to the skin of another.
Adjusting electric charges in that second tadpoles cells helped its new, third eye connect to its new
body. The adjustments triggered the attached eye to grow new nerve cells, which carry electrical
signals. Those nerve cells reached into the recipient tadpoles skin. And those infiltrating cells
created pathways to transmit signals between the new eye and the body.
This technique could help scientists learn how to make transplanted eyes, ears and other organs
better communicate with other tissues in a new host.
Scientists didnt think such an accomplishment was possible, notes biologist Sylvia Chifflet, who
was not a part of the new study. We used to think that the nervous system, once severed, would
not regenerate, she told Science News. Chifflet works at Universidad de la Repblica medical
school. Its in Montevideo, the capital of the South American nation of Uruguay.
Biologist Michael Levin works at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. He and his coworkers had
shown that electric charges play an important role in how organs, such as the eyes, develop. For
their latest study, they removed the left eye from one tadpole and attached it near the tail of another
tadpole. The eye grew, but it didnt communicate with its host.
That made sense, they realized, because the new eye wasnt growing many new axons. An axon is
the threadlike part of a nerve cell. For electrical signals to move between nerve cells, or from nerve
cells to other cells (such as muscle cells), those signals must travel along axons. In theory, a
transplanted organ could hack into its hosts nervous system by growing axons that connect with the
hosts cells.

Hoping to do that, the scientists experimented with electric charges. All cells build up such a charge
along their membranes, or outer layers. That charge is called the membrane voltage potential. The
amount of charge rises or falls as charged particles move into and out of the cells. Levins team
suspected those charges slowed or stopped the growth of axons from the newly transplanted eye.
So they cleared out the charges.
To do this, they bathed the tadpoles in a drug. Doctors normally use this medicine to wipe out
parasites. Here, though, that drug wiped out the charges on the cell membranes. Levin likened it to
draining a battery. And the trick worked: The eye began to grow many axons that reached into the
tadpoles body. Then the scientists tried the opposite: They boosted the charges on the cell
membranes. The now-supercharged layers stopped the growth of the axons. They acted like an
electric fence that penned them in.
Levins team reported its dramatic new findings December 1 in Neurotherapeutics.
Our future goal is to make nerves go where we want them to, Levin told Science News.
The technique hasnt been tested on other organisms. And thats important, because tadpoles are
very different from people. Still, the work raises the possibility that someday there might be a way
to regenerate lost organs, Donald Ingber told Science News. A bioengineer at Harvard University in
Boston, Mass., he did not take part in the new study. The only chance of ever doing this
[regenerating lost organs in people], he argues, is by first probing, as they did here, the basic
biology of how this process works.