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Life and Death Under the Skin

Amidst our blood and bones lurk forces with the power to either attack wounded muscle or bring it back to life. It’s the job of UT researchers to discover which is which. Learn more.

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Vintage engraving of human art from Anatomy of the Human Body

“It’s incredible to me that we have cells in our body that have such ability to adapt,” Farrar says. “Once you start looking at the cell biology that underlies regeneration, it’s fascinating.” [Image credit: Engraving from “Anatomy of the Human Body” (1918) by Henry Gray, via Google Books.] 

Beneath our skin, amidst the blood and bones, lurk forces with the power to either attack wounded muscle or bring it back to life. It’s Roger Farrar‘s job to discover which is which.

Farrar and the graduate students in his Exercise Science Lab at UT’s College of Education are examining cells to understand how they behave in different environments. The hope is to create a procedure that can regenerate muscle after traumatic injury like shark bites or amputations.

A key focus of the lab’s research is macrophages cells released from bone into blood that act as the janitors of the immune system, cleaning up debris and clearing injury sites.

What’s remarkable about macrophages is that when their cleanup shift ends, they get to work healing the muscle and stimulating new growth. By releasing chemical signals, they attract stem cells to the damaged area and coordinate the stem cells to proliferate and develop new muscle.

But there’s a catch.

If the macrophages arrive at the damaged muscle too soon after injury, they actually cause more damage, breaking down the tissue. There’s also the matter of what amount of macrophages is beneficial. And which of the 15 different growth factors they release are the most important, and in what combination?

The answers to those questions could unlock massive potential in using cell-based therapy to treat patients with severe muscular injuries. And it’s those patients whom Farrar keeps in mind when he’s in the lab or applying for research grants to fund his work. He is particularly attached to wounded military veterans, like the ones he met at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where a former student of his is the chief physical therapist.

“It’s an emotional response as you see these people who have sacrificed and given so much so that we can sit here and talk,” he says. “Anytime you see these people, you’re very motivated to help try and restore their functionality.”

Read more about Farrar’s research:
“Shark bites, mine explosions, car crashes may not mean loss of limb, says scientist” 

This story is part of our yearlong series “In Pursuit of Health,” covering medical news and research happening across the university.