Deadpool: The (Super)Science of Regeneration

Deadpool is an upcoming superhero movie featuring the origin story of the titular character.. The signature ability of Deadpool is high speed regeneration, which is the ability to fully recover from minor and fatal wounds, in a matter of seconds or hours depending on the author. But while the healing ability does rely on some superscience in the comics, could it be based in some real science in the present or future?

In the comics, Deadpool’s “healing factor” is derived from another character, the mutant Wolverine. This healing stems from the integration of the “X-gene” from Wolverine into Deadpool’s body by unknown methods. The character of Deadpool has cancer prior to this treatment, and after the treatment, the cancer progression is halted. There are other aspects of the healing factor in addition to tissue/limb regeneration, such as a boosted immune system granting immunity to diseases, resistance to toxins/drugs, and neuron regeneration. Because of this, Deadpool has an extended lifespan. Due to these and other changes to his physiology, Deadpool also ends up with near superhuman strength, agility, and stamina. Though the real world doesn’t have quite as fantastic examples as Deadpool’s healing factor, there are a number of real world examples of organisms with regenerative capabilities.

There are a number of animals that have shown the ability to regrow limbs and vital tissues. One of the most basic is the starfish (L. foliolata), which have been shown to be able to regrow from a single arm , Segmented worms of the Annelida family have also been shown to be able to regrow from being cut in half . A number of lower vetebrates often show regenerative capacity, including amphibians which have been shown to regenerate limbs, as well as newts and lizards which are able to regenerate detatched tails. But this ability to regenerate is lost or greatly diminished as you get closer to humans. The regeneration capacity of these organism have been key in providing insight into ways regeneration might be stimulated in humans.

There are many challenges and difficulties when it comes to regeneration in humans and other vertebrates, due in part to the body’s complexity and genes related to regeneration not retained or expressed in the genome. While the human body is capable of producing hundreds of thousands of cells (such as red blood cells and skin cells), the cells need to be correctly positioned and patterned for proper function. Critical to this are a set of genes known as the Hox genes, along with growth factors, which help to give the produced cells their identity.  

All of these events depend on populations of stem cells in amphibians and mammals.  Research  that uses stem cells to regrow tissues and even organs is integral for regenerative medicine. Currently, much of the research is based upon the growth of stems cells (isolated from a patient) placed upon a scaffold mimicking the organ structure to grow the desired tissue. It is also possible to induce other cells taken from the patient into a stem cell state, which allows for the regrown tissues to be more readily accepted by the patient. Such research has also extended to promising research is limb regeneration as well, aiming to be able to fully regrow the muscles, bones, and other integral tissues of the limb. If such medicine and research continues to advance, it could  allow the regeneration of limbs and organs similar to as seen in the comics, though under much more controlled circumstances and possibly slower.

While science to date has not discovered a single gene able to bestow such regenerative powers (so no Deadpool anytime soon!) , there is gradual increase in understanding of the underlying principles of the regenerative processes. For the time being however, we can enjoy the fantasy of regeneration that Deadpool has to offer.
Deadpool opens today! We’re definitely going to go see it, are you?


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