Jessica Whited with an axolotl salamander

Jessica Whited with an axolotl salamander

Jessica Whited, PhD, has fond memories of exploring the outdoors when she was younger—catching crayfish with her sister and studying butterflies and moths with her mother. Now a researcher in BWH’s Regenerative Medicine Center, Whited devotes her days to understanding limb regeneration in a species of salamanders and how research on these creatures might one day help humans suffering from limb loss.

Could you tell us about your work and how it could help patients one day?

My work is devoted to understanding limb regeneration in axolotl (Mexican) salamanders. The salamanders I study have legs that look and function very much like human limbs. They can completely regenerate these limbs, even as adults.

Millions of Americans are currently living with the consequences of having a major limb amputation, some of which are due to injuries and a rising number of which are due to diseases, including diabetes and peripheral artery disease—a condition in which plaque builds up in the arteries and reduces blood flow to the limbs. I believe that if we want limb regeneration in humans to become reality, we’ll only get there if we first understand how nature has solved this problem, which is why we’re studying salamanders.

How did you get interested in this field?

From an early age, my mother taught me how to identify, catch and display butterflies. I remember making my big score of a perfect tiger swallowtail on the ashes of our previous night’s campfire at the age of five. I also vividly remember going with my sister to a nearby creek to catch crayfish with our hands and coffee cans. I attribute my love of nature, which eventually gave rise to my interest in science, to these early experiences outdoors.

My grandfather, who was afflicted with peripheral artery disease, underwent a series of amputations starting with a few toes and culminating in his foot before he eventually died of the condition. This was my first encounter with the disease. I hope that someday our work will help people with this condition.

Tell us more about what it’s like working with salamanders.

Working with axolotls is a ton of fun and also a lot of work. They are permanently aquatic, which means we devote a great deal of time to keeping them clean and their water in good shape. We have hundreds of axolotls at all life stages.

Many species of salamanders can regenerate limbs. We work on axolotls specifically, though, because they have a generation time—the time between birth and when they can have babies—of nine months, which is shorter than many other salamanders.

What types of genetic tools are you working on developing?

In collaboration with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, we are making a map of all of the genes that get turned on or off during regeneration and which are specific to the regenerating part of the leg. We’re also mapping how this changes over time, with respect to specific kinds of cells.

In your opinion, why is BWH a good fit for your research?

BWH is a premier medical center. In orthopedic surgery, people are getting joints replaced and fractures fixed every day. It’s exciting to be a part of extending that outlook into the research domain, because doing research is how we make progress so that conditions that have no great treatment now might become treatable someday. Additionally, in a hospital, there’s the feeling that what you’re doing in the lab could have a double benefit—besides just pushing the boundaries of human understanding and satisfying curiosity, what you’re doing might actually help people someday.