Cartilage regeneration in little skates could hold the key to human therapies

A recent study by a group of researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, has shown that little skates have an extraordinary ability to regenerate the cartilage in their skeletons, which could lead to potential treatments in humans.

Little Skate 007
A little skate, Leucoraja erincea, camouflaged against the seafloor

Cartilage is the resilient elastic tissue that surrounds our bones and the joints between them, as well as the main structural component of our nose and ears. Over time our cartilage slowly deteriorates and eventually begins to stiffen and turn into bone, leading to a range of problems including arthritis in joints and reduced mobility. However there are some animals who’s skeletons are made entirely of cartilage and do not face these problems. These are the sharks, rays, skates and chimaeras of our oceans, collectively known as chondrichthyes. Now a group of researchers from the UK and America have discovered that one species in this group goes even further than just preserving their cartilage skeletons. Little skates, Leucoraja erinacea, also have an incredible ability to be able to completely regrow and repair damaged cartilage as well. Hopefully this ground-breaking new discovery could spark a new wave of skate inspired therapies that could help do the same in us as well.

Super skeletons

The team behind this new discovery is made up of researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. After a series of experiments in the lab, they determined that little skates could not only preserve their cartilaginous skeletons, but also repair them when damaged. It is the first known example of adult cartilage repair in a research organism, which is surprising enough in itself. However, the additional discovery that the process also leaves no scar tissue as a result, makes this a truly invaluable find.

skate skeleton
Specilaized X-rays of little skates show off their cartilaginous skeletons

This incredible ability is thought to be the result of a specialized type of cell known as a ‘progenitor cell’, which allows the little skates to create new cartilage to replace damaged parts of their skeleton or replace ageing parts as well. As part of the study the researchers were able to label and trace the cells, as well as record their genetic code. The entirety of their new findings were published in their recent paper in the journal eLife.

Potential treatments

This research is still in its early stages, but the researchers believe that this could be the first step in helping to cure some cartilage related diseases such as arthritis. Currently treatments for cartilage recovery in humans do exist, but also face a number of severe limitations, which could now be overcome by the genetic information of little skates. “Skates and humans use a lot of the same genes to make cartilage. Conceivably, if skates are able to make cartilage as adults, we should be able to also,” says Andrew Gillis, a senior author of the study from the University of Cambridge. Obviously it will take time to tell for sure if this will be a viable route for tackling these issues, but it is a promising breakthrough.

cartilage sharks
Typical shark skeletons have a much simpler structure than most mammals and other vertebrates

However the authors are also quick to point out that the hunting and harvesting of little skates should not even be considered at this point and warn that some products, including ‘shark cartilage tablets’ already available in Asia, that are sold for joint and pain relief do not work.

Marine medicines

This discovery is the latest in a long line of examples where new medicines and technologies can be either directly taken from marine organism or indirectly inspired by them. A long list of substances from corals and sponges to jellyfish and sharks have all been trialled as potential treatments for a wide range of diseases such as cancer and dementia. Such example include using octopus nervous systems as a potential treatment for Multiple sclerosis and the immortal jellyfish as a way of triggering cell regeneration. It highlights that we still have so much we can learn from our oceans and marine life and why it is more important than ever to protect them.

smiling skate
Little skates are well known and adored for their smiling faces when pressed up against aquarium glass

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