As the number of genes thought to make up a human being shrinks (from a high of 100,000 ten years ago to the current estimate of 20 to 25,000, scientists are increasingly able to hone in on particular gene and figure out what’s going on with it. Zinc “fingers” (proteins that point to and “read” specific genes) have been proven to help regrow blood vessels.Interestingly, these fingers are unique to humans–mice, rats, apes and most mammals have the same number of genes as we do, but they don’t have these zinc fingers.
The fingers are already being reproduced artificially at will and experimentation is rolling along. They’re being used to grow new blood vessels in animals–something that could bring dramatic progress to treating heart disease and associated cardiovascular ailments such as congestive heart failiure. The possibilities are exciting. “It’s a different strategy. This is using the body’s strategy as opposed to producing what you think the body needs,” says one of the scientists involved.
Yes, using the body’s natural abilities is what stem cell research is all about, too. It is promising and thrilling to learn that we humans actually can learn to work with our bodies to heal rather than inventing painful and destructive methods such as chemotherapy and radiation or horribly invasive things like open heart surgery.
Will zinc fingers one day grow new blood vessels around a set of diseased arteries–making open-heart surgery unnecessary? Will stem cells be able to grow new heart valves–obviating the need for surgery to replace them with artificial means? These ideas don’t seem so far-fetched anymore.