It may sound like the stuff that superheroes are made of, but a 'fountain of youth' gene may hold the key to faster healing of injuries and damage caused by degenerative diseases, say scientists.
The gene is thought to provide one explanation for why animals recover from tissue injury much more easily when they are young.
Known as Lin28a, the gene is highly active in embryos but dormant in adults.
Scientists found that "waking up" the gene in adult mice accelerated the regrowth of hair and the healing of ear and paw injuries.
They believe it may in future be possible to simulate the gene's effect with drugs.
"It sounds like science fiction, but Lin28a could be part of a healing cocktail that gives adults the superior tissue repair seen in juvenile animals," said US study leader Dr George Daley, from Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
The gene is "evolutionary conserved", meaning that it is found across the animal kingdom in insects, amphibians, fish and mammals, including humans.
Re-activating Lin28a in a genetically engineered strain of adult mouse stimulated cell proliferation and migration, both of which are essential for tissue repair.
The research, published in the journal Cell, showed how the gene boosted the production of several metabolic enzymes and enhanced processes that are normally more active in embryos.
"We were surprised that what was previously believed to be a mundane cellular 'housekeeping' function would be so important for tissue repair," said co-author Dr Shyh-Chang Ng, from Harvard Medical School.
"One of our experiments showed that bypassing Lin28a and directly activating mitochondrial metabolism with a small-molecule compound also had the effect of enhancing wound healing, suggesting that it could be possible to use drugs to promote tissue repair in humans."
To test the healing effect of Lin28a, digits were amputated from the paws of anaesthetised mice. Digit regrowth was significantly enhanced when the gene was active.
In another experiment, scientists measured how fast small holes punched into the animals' ears healed over.
Lin28a was also found to enhance hair regrowth in shaved mice.
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