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Fighting Tooth and Claw with Wolverine—Examining the Healing Power of an X-Man

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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“[Wolverine’s] mutation…He has uncharted regenerative capabilities, enabling him to heal rapidly…”

  • Dr. Jean Grey to Cyclops and Professor Charles Xavier in the Marvel movie “X-Men” (2000)

Wolverine was created, designed, and drawn by Len Wein, John Romita Sr., and Herb Trimpe and had his full comic book debut in “The Incredible Hulk” #181 in November of 1974. But, like all comic book heroes, Wolverine also has multiple origins. In the 2009 graphic novel “Wolverine: Origin” we meet Wolverine as James Howlett living in mid-1880s Alberta, Canada. He then moves to a mining town in northern British Columbia and goes by “Logan”.

After spending some time living with wolves and foraging from the land he comes back to live with the Blackfoot Indians and next enters the Canadian army circa World War I. Eventually he winds up in Japan and in World War II hooks up with Captain America as a kind of mercenary for hire. He serves in an elite Canadian paramilitary unit, then makes his way to the CIA and finally “Team X”. Black Ops time.

Eventually unbreakable adamantium claws are grafted to his bones (and upgrade his skeleton). This complements his biological mutant abilities. His main mutant power is rapid healing or “mutant healing factor”. This rapid healing allows for regeneration of damaged (or even destroyed) bodily tissues that exceed anything a “non-mutant” is capable of.

In the movies and comic books Wolverine almost comes out as indestructible, like Superman. The difference is Wolverine does get hurt and injured. A lot. But he heals so fast it almost doesn’t seem to matter. This begs the question—is it actually possible to speed up healing?

And there’s something else wrapped up in the concept of rapid healing. Healing from injury may be linked with the ability to regenerate whole parts of the body. The axolotl—Ambystoma Mexicanum—has been well studied scientifically because it can regenerate whole limbs. The axolotl can also accept tissue transplants from other animals very readily. In short, it has amazing healing and growth potential. The axolotl is like a naturally occurring version of the mutant healing factor found in the comic book Wolverine. But without sharp adamantium claws (too bad). Or a yellow jumpsuit (thankfully).

The observed fact that some animals—like the axolotyl, newts, and planarian worms—can regenerate their own tissues has long been held as an ancient capability that all animals might have buried deep within their DNA. This has raised the tantalizing possibility that if we could just learn where and what in the newt genome was coding for healing and regeneration we could figure out how to turn that on in us humans.

Just recently, though, analysis of the newt genome shows that this capability may be a unique specialization that recently evolved. On top of that, the genome itself is much larger than originally estimated clocking in at about an order of magnitude larger than our own human genome. This complicates sequencing efforts.

So we aren’t quite up to regeneration of whole limbs yet. And it will be pretty challenging to actually get there. We are though, well on our way to better understanding and improving healing by using low-level laser light.

The really intriguing thing about this technology—the power behind the procedure—is that it is simple. It is based on “photobiomodulation” which means it uses light. No gamma rays, x-rays, or some kind of other deadly-sounding comic book fictional energy rays are needed. It uses the energy in the photons that are parts of the visible spectrum of light and helps activate cellular processes to heal faster.

The basic concept is that low level laser light penetrates mitochondria—our cellular powerhouses—deep within the injured tissues. The photons interact with the enzyme cytochrome C oxidase and this energy is then converted to chemical energy that our cells can use—ATP. The outcome is increased tissue blood flow and energy supply. Since the biggest issue with healing is a lack of blood flow in the tissue that you are hoping will heal, anything that can be done to increase blood flow will help with healing.

So far this approach of using light to help accelerate healing has been used in many different tissues. These have applications that range literally from head to toe and are captured in the Figure below. I’ve only highlighted some of the potential applications for Wolverine in the figure below. More are currently being investigated, along with attempts to refine the dosage (time and intensity most notably) needed for a given tissue.

Low-level laser light could be used to help accelerate healing of Wolverine’s injuries. Photo adapted from 5of7, Wikimedia Commons. Biomedical applications extracted from Hashmi et al (2010) “Role of Low-Level Laser Therapy in Neurorehabilitation”.

But would Wolverine be able to find devices to help him heal? Some really interesting recent commercial advances have come from dentistry. In the case of Wolverine, strong teeth is probably a good idea anyway and a new procedure called “OsseoPulse” bone regeneration from Biolux Research Inc. has changed the game. This procedure may be able to speed up healing by as much as 50% faster than usual after dental implant procedures.

I spoke with Kevin Strange, President and CEO of Biolux Research, the company in the vanguard of this approach. He called the “OsseoPulse” procedure a “great example of translational basic research from bench, to bedside and beyond culminating in a useful product”. Engineers and scientists in many areas of biomedical research are constantly seeking this translation from research concept to useful real-world application.

Of course, none of this really creates the kind of healing factor typically on display when Wolverine is in full-on combat action. Like the scene in X-Men 3 (2007) where Wolverine is basically dissolving and healing while fighting Jean Grey as “Dark Phoenix”. He absorbed an incredible amount of energy and it is pretty hard to imagine any procedure compensating for this kind of tissue damage and overall destruction.

Even though we are nowhere close to that kind of recovery and healing, we are closing in on more rapid healing and more rapid recovery in tissues throughout the body.

And that outcome can benefit everyone—from superheroes to you and me.

© E. Paul Zehr (2013)

 

E. Paul Zehr About the Author: E. Paul Zehr is professor, author and martial artist at the University of Victoria. His books “Becoming Batman”, “Inventing Iron Man” and “Project Superhero” use superheroes as metaphors for popularizing science. Visit his website at www.zehr.ca.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. paleoromano 2:12 am 07/27/2013

    Wolverine Origins came out in 2001, not 2009. Adamantium claws were not bonded to his skeleton. He always had claws, they are made of bone, the Weapon X program bonded adamantium to his skeleton, which includes his claws.

    I am not sure if you are an actual avid comic reader but the run down of Wolverine sounded a lot like a summary of a wikipedia page. It turned me off pretty quickly to the rest of the article. Just trying to give some constructive criticism.

    I am a science teacher and avid comic reader, I often use superheroes as metaphors for teaching, if you are ever interested, I am more than happy to help.

    Link to this

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