Researchers say the science behind Spider-Man ain't that far off

Contributed by
Dec 17, 2012, 3:27 PM EST

We all know Peter Parker's a science nerd, but how realistic are the concepts he's dealing with in The Amazing Spider-Man? After all, a key plot point is a scientist who injects himself with lizard DNA to regrow a limb and becomes a monster instead. Well, according to actual scientists, the lizard monster part might be off, but the rest isn't all that crazy.

Just to be clear, by "the rest" we don't mean Parker's enhanced abilities after a genetically engineered super spider bites him. No, we're talking about the story of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), who becomes the Lizard while trying to regrow a hand. Though he winds up with some interesting and dangerous side effects, Connors' concept of using "regenerative medicine" to restore his own body is actually a solid one.

"We're working on long-term projects to regenerate fingers and limbs," said Koudy Williams, a Spider-Man fan who's also a professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center's Institute for Regenerative Medicine. "But we have safer ways to do it than the researchers in Spider-Man."

In the film, Parker and Connors work together to find the right combination of human and lizard DNA (because certain lizards can regrow tails, you see) to create a serum that will restore Connors' body. It seems to work, until the monster part kicks in. Though he says he would never do anything so dangerous as splicing human and animal DNA, Williams and his fellow researchers are otherwise working toward the same goal: to regrow limbs and boost the body's natural healing power.

"The body knows what it needs to heal. We work to see if we can improve on it," Williams said. "This is most like what scientists in the Spider-Man movie were doing. Our projects include evaluating the use of natural materials to speed up nerve regeneration, heal diseased kidneys and improve one of the current options for heart valve replacement."

Among the methods Williams and his fellows researchers employ that don't include the dangerous step of injecting humans with lizard DNA are using a patient's own cells to grow new tissue in a mold or scaffold (which they've done successfully with bladders, urine tubes and windpipes), injecting healing cells into diseased areas and using "drug-like molecules" to help promote natural healing.

But what about actually regrowing someone's severed finger or hand or even leg? It's complicated, much more complicated than The Amazing Spider-Man makes it look, but Williams says they're working on it.

"We're years away from being able to bioengineer an arm, or even a finger," Williams said. "But we're working on the component parts, including muscle, bone, fat, skin and tendons, and part of our work will be to use the body for the regeneration process."

So, if you're ever in the unfortunate position of losing a body part, don't go crazy and turn into a huge lizard beast that tries to kill everyone in New York. Just go talk to these guys.

(Via Science Daily)

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