Superheroes and their powers are often the subject of lighthearted and nonserious scientific research. Marvel's antihero Deadpool, however, has a power that scientists are earnestly studying and trying to harness.
First, a brief introduction to Deadpool.
Also known as Wade Wilson, Deadpool is a sarcastic, eccentric smart-ass, way more of an antihero than your traditional superhero.
Deadpool acquires his powers when he seeks out the help of a creepy, top-secret company to help cure his cancer with a dangerous experimental "treatment" designed to activate mutant genes. (Incidentally, it's the same creepy, top-secret company that gave Wolverine his adamantium skeleton and claws.)
In the movie version of the story, they throw Deadpool — played by Ryan Reynolds — into a tiny chamber and starve his body of oxygen for days. It works, and suddenly Wade has an awesome regeneration power. He can quickly heal from any wound, even beheading, and he's immune to most types of poisons and diseases. However, the transformation leaves him with horrible scars all over his body. Naturally, he wants vengeance.
While this is definitely a science-fiction story, there's actually some real science behind his scars and abilities.
First, the scarring: Deadpool the movie glosses over what exactly causes it. There's a vague line about a bad reaction from the mutation.
It's difficult to pin down scientifically what may have caused Deadpool's horrible scarring. To find out the truth, Mic reached out to Craig Hersh, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
The scarring was definitely not caused by the the oxygen deprivation, Hersh said. We can rule that out.
"Oxygen deprivation can cause cyanosis, a blue appearance to the skin, usually the lips or fingertips — but this is not permanent and resolves when blood oxygen levels are restored," Hersh told Mic. "Oxygen deprivation would not cause scarring." Boom.
In the comic book world, though, the scarring is actually linked to Deadpool's cancer.
"Wade had cancer when he was given the healing powers, and so his cancer cells regenerate as quickly as his normal cells, accounting for the scarred appearance of his skin under his uniform," ComicsAlliance explains in a video.
Does it check out? Sadly, there's no way to really test whether or not that theory is true. It might be our best bet.
But there's a ton of science behind Deadpool's cancer and regeneration ability. Cancer cells grow extremely quickly — that's part of the reason the disease is so deadly. They pull other cells into giant tumors and stop the body from functioning properly. This happens when genes called oncogenes multiply and spread all over the body.
But if things are working normally, tumor-suppressor genes stop proto-oncogenes from getting out of control. Kyle Hill from Nerdist said in a video that's the key to Deadpool's regeneration power. When Deadpool gets an arm chopped off or takes a bullet through his body, oncogene expression ramps up in the area, and the cancer cells start multiplying and rebuilding the limb or tissue. Then, once the healing process is moving along, tumor-suppressor genes come in and stifle the oncogenes before they get too out of control.
Totally science-fiction, right? Nope. Meet the axolotl.
There's actually an animal that uses a similar relationship between oncogenes and tumor-suppressor genes to regenerate. The axolotl, a type of salamander native to Mexico, can regrow limbs, pieces of spinal cord and even chunks of its brain. Just look at this li'l guy.
Stephane Roy, associate professor at the University of Montreal, told Scientific American how its limb regeneration works:
You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level — the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm — and it will regenerate, and it's perfect. There is nothing missing, there's no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect.
Researchers at University College London are studying the axolotl to figure out how we might be able to apply this to humans one day.
Could it be possible? "Although it may be considerable time before we can promote 'salamander-like' regenerative abilities in humans, we are certainly getting closer than ever before," James Godwin, a researcher at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute, told Mic.
"Modern molecular tools are allowing us to define genes and cells implicated in salamander regeneration, and this may soon provide insights useful in treating many injuries or diseases in humans," Godwin added.
So the end goal might not be to turn us all into superheroes. Godwin acknowledged it might not be possible to harness this power in humans, but there's clinical potential in the axolotl.
"We have evolved a great deal from the ancestor we shared with the salamander," Godwin said. "It's possible there are limits of biology we won't be able to overcome."
That's why other scientists are studying a different route toward successful human regeneration. They propose tweaking the Lin28a gene — which is responsible for turning cells back into embryonic stem cells, where they can develop into a hand cell or a liver cell or any other type of cell.
All this research is still in fairly early stages, but it could have profound implications for the future of medicine — as if Deadpool needed any more proof he's the coolest superhero out there.