MITO, IBARAKI PREF. – A researcher in Ibaraki Prefecture has been studying about a thousand newts every year in the hope of shedding light on the amphibian’s self-renewal capability, which he believes could lead to development of regenerative medicine for human beings.
Chikafumi Chiba, a 49-year-old associate professor at the University of Tsukuba, said he wants to understand what genes and proteins enable the newt to regenerate its tissue, including limbs and even the crystal lens of its eyes, and what restricts humans from developing such an ability.
Chiba said his research team, which uses indigenous Japanese red-bellied newts, is seeking to first discover differences in the mechanisms of two species, focusing on the functions of their genes and proteins.
He said that if the secret of the newt is revealed, “it will be possible to save people who were injured in an accident” through regeneration of their body cells.
Chiba was born to a farmer’s family in the village of Kitashiobara in Fukushima Prefecture in 1965 and grew up around cows and chickens.
After graduating from Nara University of Education, he developed an interest in animal behavior and cultural anthropology. But when his research in these fields stalled, he switched to physiology.
“By nature, I hate experiments on animals, as we have to kill them or dissect them,” he said.
Nonetheless, he began his current research as recommended by a University of Tsukuba professor he met at an academic conference.
His research at the university requires 1,000 red-bellied newts every year. Since the newt has been added to the list of near-threatened species, it is rarely on the market and he has also been breeding newts in idle farmland on his own.
“I’ve been convincing myself that the future of regenerative medicine largely hinges on the newt, one of Japan’s major aquatic creatures,” he said.