Future generations may be able to heal without scarring and grow their own replacement limbs, UK scientists hope.
By Michelle Roberts
BBC News website health reporter
A team at Manchester University, with funding from The Healing Foundation charity, are looking to animals for clues to how the body can regenerate.
Human babies while still in the womb can heal without any scars, but as we get older we lose this ability.
Yet adult frogs retain this capacity and salamanders can even grow new tails and limbs when severed.
Over the next 25 years, Professor Enrique Amaya and colleagues will study what genes and cells are important for regeneration and see if the same can be encouraged to happen in mammals, starting with mice and moving ultimately to humans if successful.
The work could mean that people who are severely scarred will be able to heal without any trace of the injury.
Similarly, people who lose a limb through trauma may be able to grow a new one identical to the one that they lost.
Professor Mark Ferguson, from the UK Centre for Tissue Engineering at Manchester University, said: "Imagine the situation where you have a medicine that perhaps you inject locally at the site of the injury which allows the body to regenerate that particular part.
"The first advances will probably be in straightforward tissues like the skin and cartilage and then in more complicated tissues like heart and liver.
"These are areas where advances are being made and will be made in the future. We are very excited."
He said about 1,000 patients had already been trialling "promising" new therapies designed to minimise or completely banish scarring.
Professor Gus McGrouther, chair of plastic and reconstructive research at the university, said: "If someone had a breast cancer, currently we reconstruct the breast. The move is towards reconstructing the normal anatomy. What we need are much better techniques...for example, to get people to grow a breast."
Professor Amaya said humans most likely lose this "perfect" healing capacity at about six months of age as an embryo because it becomes more important to heal wounds quickly to avoid infections.
He hopes that it will be possible to restore regeneration without any cost in terms of healing time or side effects, possibly using drugs or gene therapy.
While the answer is not immediately around the corner, the researchers believe their work could help future generations.
Olivia Giles is one patient who is glad that scientists are pushing the boundaries of research.
Olivia, now aged 40, had all four limbs amputated at the age of 36 after developing gangrene as a complication of blood poisoning by the same bacterium that causes meningitis.
"I fell ill incredibly quickly. I was in intensive care within 24 hours. The gangrene spread from my extremities up my limbs. It spread over my elbows and knees and, at that time, the doctors thought they would have to amputate above my joints.
"I was unconscious and my partner, who is now my husband, and my family had to decide whether to go ahead or let me slip away."
Her plastic surgeon managed to use experimental surgery to save her elbow and knee joints, which Olivia said means she now has much more freedom and function than she might have had otherwise.
"If he had not taken the science right to the very edge then I might not be here and as it is I have now got a 100% fully independent life.
"Even the smallest developments can make a big difference. Our capacity for healing is enormous as it is. When I look at the state I was in, I have healed beyond anything I could image.
"By pushing frontiers more lives will be saved."