MDI Bio Lab, which was founded in Harpswell in 1898 as a summer field research institution, has shifted its focus over the years and now is a year-round biomedical laboratory that specializes in regenerative and aging biology and medicine. Credit: contributed | contributed

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A Bar Harbor biomedical research lab known for trying to unlock the secrets for regrowing body parts and living longer lives has hired a scientist with expertise in how a Mexican salamander can regenerate lost limbs.

Prayag Murawala will be the second investigator at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory who has conducted extensive research on the axolotl, which is a salamander that can regrow nearly any body part, according to MDI Bio Lab officials. James Godwin, an immunologist who studies limb and heart regeneration in the axolotl, was an investigator at the Australian

Regenerative Medicine Institute before joining the MDI Bio Lab faculty in 2016.

“Prayag has been instrumental in developing many of the sophisticated genetic and molecular tools used to study appendage regeneration in this remarkable animal,” said Hermann Haller, president of the laboratory. “His presence on our faculty will help establish us as a leading international center in this exciting field.”

Murawala, who is expected to start in his new post early this summer, currently is a postdoctoral fellow at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna, Austria.

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MDI Bio Lab, which was founded in Harpswell in 1898 as a summer field research institution, has shifted its focus over the years and now is a year-round biomedical laboratory that specializes in regenerative and aging biology and medicine. The lab currently has 64 employees, including its research faculty.

In 2010, the lab received a $1.6 million grant from the Department of Defense to study how skates, salamanders and certain types of fish can regrow limbs. Three years later the lab spun off its first for-profit venture, Novo Biosciences, after developing a potential drug that was shown to have a dramatic impact on the regrowth of zebrafish tail fins.

Learning how such limb regeneration occurs could lead to new therapies for more than two million people in the U.S. who have lost an arm or leg, or part of one, because of military combat, accidents, diabetes or other causes, lab officials have said. It also could lead to clinical applications that might help with regenerating damaged heart, brain and spinal cord tissue.

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Last year, scientists at the lab working with researchers based in California and China found a way to extend the lifespans of a species of tiny worm by 500 percent. If that scientific finding eventually leads to a proportional result when applied to people, it would be the equivalent of a person living for 400 years or even longer — and hopefully would help them stay healthy for much of that timespan, lab officials have said.

Murawala also will also conduct research in Bar Harbor at The Jackson Laboratory, which will allow him to use its research mice to “reverse engineer” limb regeneration by comparing the genetics of the axolotl with that of adult mice, which cannot regenerate their limbs, MDI Bio Lab officials said.

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“The choice to join the faculty at the MDI Biological Laboratory was an easy one,”

Murawala said in a statement. “Not only will I get to work with James Godwin, but I also will have access to [the lab’s] established axolotl colony, which otherwise could take years to build, and to the mouse resources at [Jackson Lab].”

Murawala’s work will complement that of Godwin, who also has research access to Jackson Lab mice, MDI Bio Lab officials said. Godwin’s research focuses on the role of the salamander’s immune system in setting the stage for regeneration, while Murawala’s focuses on the cascade of molecular signals required for regeneration to take place.

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....