Regeneration sensation

Phil Newmark is a developmental biologist who uses freshwater flatworms to study the mysteries of how the body regenerates damaged tissue.

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When Phil Newmark began studying planarians in the mid-1990s, only a handful of labs around the world still used the freshwater flatworms for research. 

But Newmark’s curiosity led him to a fellowship with a planarian research group at the University of Barcelona, Spain. After that experience, Newmark was hooked. He brought a thermos full of the creatures, collected from a fountain pool in the city, back to the U.S. to form his own colony. 

The freshwater flatworms are remarkable creatures because they’re capable of regenerating their entire body from scratch. The model organism offers a way to better understand stem cell-driven regeneration processes, an important step in regenerative medicine and the promise of therapies to repair or replace damaged human tissue. 

“I remember planarians back from the days of my freshman biology class, when I thought they were the coolest things ever,” he says. “Their stem cells respond to various injuries and somehow are told that when a head or tail is missing, make a new head or a new tail. They really are just amazing.” 

Newmark brought that enthusiasm — and a reputation as an international leader in stem cell biology and regeneration — with him when he joined the Department of Integrative Biology and Morgridge Institute for Research this fall. 

“Our stem cell and regenerative medicine portfolio is one of UW’s strengths, and adding someone of his caliber will help us continue to stay on the front end of innovation in this field,” says Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “The kind of basic research performed by Professor Newmark ... holds enormous promise for treating and preventing a wide range of serious diseases and disorders.” 

I remember planarians back from the days of my freshman biology class, when I thought they were the coolest things ever.

Newmark also is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, part of a prestigious group of about 300 U.S. scientists who are pushing the boundaries of biomedical research. 

Beyond fundamental questions, Newmark’s work has immediate implications for a tropical disease called schistosomiasis, which is second only to malaria in scope and kills more than 200,000 people per year. It turns out the parasitic worms that cause this disease share a lot of biology with planarians, and Newmark’s lab has identified many new avenues for fighting the parasite. 

“Schistosomiasis is one of a whole group of neglected diseases that are essentially diseases of poverty,” he says. “Many result from not having access to clean drinking water or clean water in general. The number of people affected by these diseases is really staggering.