Marvel’s latest superhero movie smashed into cinemas a couple of weeks ago, breaking box office records and gaining critical acclaim. Whilst decidedly not family-friendly, Deadpool has quickly become the year’s favourite super hero. Why are we writing about it, and why is there a picture of a friendly lizard at the top? Well, there’s some surprisingly solid science fact behind the science fiction powers of the foul-mouthed mercenary. If you haven’t seen the film yet: beware, spoilers may lie ahead.
Who is Deadpool?
Deadpool, real name Wade Wilson, is a sarcastic and sweary ex-Special Forces operator working as a mercenary.
After being diagnosed with cancer, he is approached by a recruiter for a secret program; when he accepts, he's taken to a somewhat grubby building filled with laboratory equipment, mutant patients and people in doctor's coats who you're not entirely sure are traditionally qualified.
Although offered as an experimental cure for his condition, the torturous procedure turns out to be designed to awaken latent mutant genes and create super powers. The process gives him horrific scars across the entirety of his face and body – but he does develop an exceptional healing power.
This not only stops the cancer from killing him but also, later in the film, allows him to re-grow a hand after it’s been cut off. In fact, in the comics he has survived decapitation, incineration, a nuclear bomb and even having his head pulverised by the Hulk!
The Science of Healing
The idea of being able to re-grow a missing limb sounds extraordinary – but this is where we come back to the friendly lizard pictured up top. It's an axolotl, a type of salamander which lives in Mexico, and it is capable of doing just that.
Scientists have established that the axolotl is capable of regenerating limbs cut at any level, perfectly and with no scarring. They can even regenerate a cut spinal cord and even parts of the brain.
Would You Like to Live Forever?
This is, of course, of great interest to science. If it might be possible to understand how the axolotl can regenerate its limbs, it may one day be possible to apply this to humans. Such regenerative medicine may provide the capability to heal previously irreparable tissues and organs – and perhaps even prevent aging.
Indeed, prominent proponent of regenerative medicine Aubrey de Grey believes that such techniques might mean that human beings alive today could be capable of living indefinitely – although this hasn’t been achieved yet. And would we want it to be? In the comics, Deadpool's immortality is sometimes portrayed as a curse.
Regeneration and Cancer
One question that many might be asking is this: if Deadpool can heal chopped off limbs and complete incineration, how come he can’t regenerate his lovely clear Ryan Reynolds complexion?
According to the comics, it’s because his healing factor was triggered while he had cancer; as a result the cancerous cells regenerate just like the normal, healthy ones do. The healing factor simultaneously stops the cancer from killing him, whilst also stopping the cancerous cells from being killed; this manifests in the scarred, tumour-like appearance of his skin.
Scientifically, cancer and regeneration are actually linked; cancer is caused by rapid and uncontrolled growth in ordinary cells, which is why it’s so hard to treat – our immune systems can’t easily differentiate between cancerous cells and normal ones, and treatments are equally difficult to target.
Cancer as a Superpower?
Research shows that there are two groups of genes involved – oncogenes, which cause the out-of-control cell division of cancer, and tumour suppressor genes which prevent it.
If it were possible to activate oncogenes when cell division was needed – in order to repair damage – and then activate tumour suppressors when it wasn’t, you could have control over the body. In this way, it’s conceivable that it’s the growth ability of the cancerous cells in Deadpool’s body that is harnessed to regenerate his limbs.
So, could looking into a cure for cancer provide a way to understand and prevent other maladies? Only time - and research - will tell.