Laboratory worms may reveal secrets of wound healing

Advancements in wound healing, a serious problem in diabetics and the elderly, may soon bear the mark of one of nature’s smaller life forms: the roundworm.

Biologists at the University of California, San Diego, have discovered genes in the laboratory roundworm C. elegans that signal the presence of surface wounds and trigger another series of chemical reactions that allow the worms to quickly close those wounds. The researchers report in the December 6 issue of the journal Current Biology that these two findings and a third discovery they made in the worms—involving genes that inhibit wound healing—could allow scientists to eventually design ways to improve the healing of cuts and sores.

Little is known about what happens within our cells or bodies in the moments following injury. “That’s still a big, big question,” researchers said. “But we think we’ve made a start that will help us answer that question.”

Researchers took time-lapse movies of areas around the transparent worms where they punctured the skin with a needle or laser. They then developed genetic screens to pinpoint the specific “channel” that is signaling the presence of the wound and stimulating the healing process.

Researchers say the roundworms may be the ideal animals for this testing as they possess a rapid wound response mechanism that keeps surface wounds from being fatal.

“They have a hydrostatic skeleton in which the skin and muscles are under pressure to allow the animal to stay semi-rigid, so when you jab a worm with a needle it will, in effect, explode,” researchers said. “But remarkably, they don’t die when you do that because they have evolved ways to very rapidly close wounds to survive in the wild.”

In addition, the researchers discovered in roundworms that a protein called DAPK-1 acts to inhibit the closure of wounds, raising the possibility that drugs that inhibit the action of this protein could improve the wound healing process in humans.

“Wound healing in humans is a much more complicated situation than this of course,” researchers said. “But the hope is that by learning more about the basic biology of wound responses, we can eventually learn how to heal wounds more quickly or, in the case of the elderly or those with diabetes, overcome their weakened responses to healing.”

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