Bullet wound? No problem.
Lost limb? Pfft.
Deadpool can take on anything thanks to the healing factor, which he acquires from a creepy, top-secret company that helps him cure his cancer with a dangerous experimental “treatment” stimulating 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, the company throws Wade Wilson — played by Ryan Reynolds — into a tiny chamber and starves 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.
With these genetic-based superpowers transforming Wade Wilson, a mediocre crook, into Deadpool, a real-life ninja, the question begs to be asked: Can science back up Deadpool’s superpowers, and can we acquire them?
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.
Salamanders capitalize on the 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.
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.
Can we become Deadpool?
James Godwin, a researcher at the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute, explains,
Although it may be a considerable time before we can promote ‘salamander-like’ regenerative abilities in humans, we are certainly getting closer than ever before. 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.
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.
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.