SHS grad studying limb regeneration
Hays Burchfield -

SHELBY — A Shelby High graduate and brother of a city councilman is directing studies in the United Kingdom — exploring ways for humans to regrow missing arms and legs by researching frogs and salamanders.

Dr. Enrique Amaya graduated from Shelby High in 1980, and his brother is Dicky Amaya, the sixth ward’s representative on the Shelby City Council. After Enrique finished his undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1984, he moved to the San Francisco Bay area in California before moving to the United Kingdom.

Below is The Star’s interview conducted by e-mail.

Q: Can you give me a time frame you’re thinking you’ll achieve your goals? And state the goal of the study.

A: Our short-term goals are to better understand the molecular and cellular basis of wound healing and tissue regeneration in frogs and salamanders.

Our long-term goal is to use this knowledge to identify ways of improving healing and regeneration in humans. The short-term goal will, of course, be reached incrementally over the next decade or two. The long-term goal will take considerably longer. Eventually we would hope to identify drugs that help healing and regeneration in humans.

Q: Your study started Oct. 11, 2005, correct?

A: My appointment as the Chair of Tissue Regeneration and director of the new Healing Foundation Centre at the University of Manchester was announced on that date. However, as is often the case in academia, my actual laboratory will not move from the University of Cambridge to the University of Manchester until the end of August of this year.

Q: What has been accomplished so far?

A: Despite the fact that our work will not be going full force until the laboratory moves to Manchester at the end of August, we have been making some interesting progress in several respects. 

For example, we have begun to study the reformation of the blood vessels during tail regeneration in tadpoles, which promises to be an excellent system to investigate how blood vessels regeneration following injury. 

In addition, we have been studying the process by which white blood cells are recruited to wound sites. In addition, we have been studying how wounds close following injury.

Q: What kinds of experiments are you and your staff doing during this study?

A: I’d love to go into the details, but this might be difficult to put in clear, concise and understandable ways. In brief, we know that frog embryos heal wounds very quickly and completely within a few hours. 

In fact, we know that mammalian embryos, including human embryos, heal wounds perfectly. However it is difficult to study wound healing in mammalian embryos, as they develop inside the mother’s body. 

For this reason we turn to frog embryos, which can be produced in very large numbers and are relatively large, so are much easier to study. What we don’t know is why do embryos heal wounds so well. 

To understand this we are trying to identify the genes responsible wound healing in frog embryos. In similar ways, we are trying to understand which genes are responsible for the amazing ability in tadpoles to regenerate their tails when they lose them. 

I should mention that tadpole tails are not simple structures. They contain muscle, blood vessels, spinal cord, nerve cells, and cartilage, yet the regenerated tail contains all these tissues in the right place, etc. We really would like to know how they do this.

Q: Does the study have periodic benchmarks that have to be met before you can continue?

A: There are no defined milestones that must be met, but there will be some expectation for progress not only from others, but from ourselves. We recognize that some of our goals are lofty and that some may not be reached for many decades (if ever), but we also believe that they are worth pursuit.

Q: How is your study being funded, and how much will it cost?

A: As most studies of the sort, our work will be funded from scientific grants from both the government and charities. One newly formed charity in Britain, called “The Healing Foundation,” will fund some of our work. Another charity in Britain that funds much of our work is called “The Wellcome Trust.” You can find more information about these charities at the following Web sites: and http://www.wellcome.

Q: How many people are you directing in this study and what countries are they all from?

A: The centre that I will be directing will be able to accommodate around 50 people, but this will include several laboratories. My group has people from all over the world (i.e. Portugal, France, Chile, China, Taiwan, Japan, US, Britain).

Here is a continuation of questions and answers from The Star’s interview with 1980 Shelby High graduate Dr. Enrique Amaya.

Q: Have you led studies similar in scale to the one you’re leading now? If so, please tell me about them and their results.

A: I have been a successful scientist for over 20 years, but our move into regenerative medicine is new. In Manchester, I will be the director of a new center, which hopes to attract scientists from all over the world to focus on several different aspects of study in regenerative medicine.

Q: If your study found a way to regenerate human limbs, who would hold the patent on the method?

A: This is far in the future.

Q: Are there any downsides to what you're trying to do such as ways it could be misused? How would you respond to people who may be against the work you're doing?

A: I find it difficult to identify ways in which our scientific endeavors could be misused. It is, after all, aimed at trying to identify the mechanisms responsible for wound healing and regeneration, with the ultimate goal of finding ways to improve healing and regeneration in humans. To those who would be against the work that we're doing, I would ask whether they feel that it is not worthwhile understanding the mechanisms of wound healing and regeneration better, in order to help those living with visible disfigurements caused by congenital abnormalities, disease or accidents?

Q: Why did you decide to go into the field you're in?

A: I began studying molecular embryology since I initiated my PhD at the University of California at San Francisco in 1986. By molecular embryology, I am trying to understand the basis of how embryos develop at the level of genes and gene functions. The new avenues of work that we are initiating now are in terms of studying the molecular basis behind the ability of some animals (namely amphibians; frogs and salamanders) to regenerate complex tissues, like tails and limbs, following injury and loss. Ultimately we would hope that understanding the ability of these animals to regenerate tissue might help us identify ways of improving our own abilities to heal wounds and regenerate tissues following injury. This line of work falls within the realm of the science called, "Regenerative Medicine."

Q: What is your goal in life?

A: There can never be one goal in life; there can only be many goals in life. As a scientist, a goal would be to make a significant contribution into the understanding of how embryos develop, how wounds heal and how tissues regenerate. By significant this would mean that the studies would be remembered and quoted for many decades to come. However, perhaps a more important goal would be to successfully train the next generation of scientists, which would then take on the task of furthering knowledge to the benefit of mankind in the future.

Q: Where would you like to retire?

A: Probably Greece.

Q: Where were you born?

A: Bogota, Colombia

Q: What extracurricular activities were you involved in when you were at Shelby High School?

A: I was involved in drama and music during my high school tenure. In terms of music, I was in the high school band and orchestra, but outside school, I was also part of a group called "Montage," which played original music at events throughout Cleveland County.

Q: When was the last time you were in Cleveland County?

A: I visit Shelby once or twice a year, as my mother, Jean lives there. Also I have two brothers living in Shelby; Dicky Amaya and Robert Amaya.

Q: What are your impressions of Shelby and Cleveland County, or what's been your lasting memories?

A: The last time I lived in Shelby full-time was 1980 when I was 18, so my impressions are really from my youth. I have fond memories of playing music in the basement of my fellow Montage group members; in particular the basement of Chris Green, who still lives in the area and works for the in the Land Registry (I believe). I remember sneaking into the auditorium at Shelby High with Montage, setting up and playing music to an empty auditorium late at night. I remember riding my bike around Cleveland County, exploring many nooks and crannies of the back roads of Cleveland County on my bike. I also remember spending a lot of time playing tennis at the courts of Shelby High and Junior High.

Q: Who is the one person who has most influenced you in life?

A: My life could have taken many turns, as I have always had wide interests. At different points in my life I have wanted to be an astronomer, a professional tennis player, a musician... However, I ended up becoming a research scientist. One might ask why? In fact, if one would ask my teachers at Shelby High, I doubt that any of them would ever had imagined that I would have ended up being a scientist. In fact, my recollection of my high school days is that I was not particularly good in science while there. I really don't know whether that reflected the quality of teaching or immaturity in my part. I do, however, remember well taking Dick Hamrick's chemistry class and learning a lot. So perhaps my first positive influence in science learning came from Hamrick at SHS. Following that, a huge influence in my becoming an academic research scientist was Professor Eugene Lehman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When I arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill as a green, naive undergraduate in 1980, Dr. Lehman nurtured my interest and made it flourish into what became a career for me.

 Click here to see Dr. Amaya's Web site.