The Science of Wolverine’s Healing Ability

Wolverine’s Healing Factor

Cut him, bruise him, tear him to shreds and separate his upper ad lower torso… he doesn’t care because he’ll heal, and he’ll do it in a matter of hours.

Wolverine (a.k.a. Logan), mutant in the Marvel Universe who has acute senses, a metallic-coated skeleton (the metal is called adamantium, and it is an invention of the great Marvel minds), and the power to heal almost any wound he sustains, is a force to be reckoned with.  His “healing factor” allows him to rapidly counteract toxins, poisons, diseases, and irritants, and his body heals quickly from physical injury.  What a power to have!  But what needs to happen on a cellular level for such a hasty healing process to happen?

Scenario:  Wolverine dukes it out with a gang of… gangsters when one of them manages to embed his dagger into Wolvie’s ribcage.  Naturally, he tears the gangsters to shreds, and removes the dagger, but now what?  Come on healing factor!  Within minutes there is no sign of him being stabbed at all.

Let’s slow it down a bit.  With normal regeneration, blood flows and then clots, puss builds up and infectious organisms are expelled.  All of the surrounding cells multiply, using their genetic codes to produce the right kind of tissue, until the exposed area is sutured.  But, genetics aren’t perfect and a scar will be left.  Plus, there may still be infection or other complications.

~Enter magical world of sci-fi and fiction~

The cells around the wound multiply at an alarming rate.  There is little time (or use) for blood clotting, or the expulsion of puss, and there is no scar to be seen once the organs, skin, and other tissues go into a state of hyper-mitosis.

But wait, he isn’t healing when he doesn’t need to, and he isn’t shedding dead skin faster than anyone else.  It looks like Wolvie’s body has a trigger, where his metabolism speeds up when he loses significant cell structure.  If it were that he was always in a hyper state of growth, it might explain his hasty healing.  We could explain this away as a man living in a hyper state of time.  But, Logan actually ages slower than most, which falls contradictory to what science tells us.  What we see as “aging” is actually a process of continual mitosis that — after generations of making copies of copies — begins to degrade.  Yes, we mature and we go through puberty, or for some, menopause, but our wrinkles and liver spots, and our brittle bones all stem from wear and tear over the years, not to mention errors made in our cells’ reproduction.  Yes, having too much cholesterol in our diet, or not having enough vitamin C can result in certain complications over time, but our genetic code is not innocent when it comes to our aging.  An error here, and you stop producing pigment in your hair (thus, your hair greys), an error there and your cells become cancerous.  If we were to explain Wolverine’s healing ability through rapid cell mitosis, he would look like he was fifty when he was a teenager.

 

Okay, so his cells divide at super speeds only when needed.  There must be a trigger.  But wait; again the process of cell division would have to be flawless so that neither scar nor wrinkle could be seen. Scarring is a result of tissue overlap as the wound heals, thus Wolverine must have another internal mechanism that coordinates and supervises all cell divisions so that there can be no distinction between his healed body, and an original blueprint.  In the real world we can’t have one without the other; either we age slowly and heal slowly, or we age rapidly and heal rapidly, right?

 Let us move on to his immune system.  Wolverine walks into a room, and sees a glass of wine on the table.  A letter beside the glass says, “Drink me.”  As Wolverine lifts the glass from the table, he inadvertently springs a trap that releases an odorless vapour containing viral and bacterial organisms into the room that are otherwise lethal to humans.  Meanwhile, Logan has imbibed the wine that has been tainted with a poison that is strong enough to kill Sasquatch (From Alpha Flight, because, like all other Canadian superheroes, he sucks igloo-balls).  After a few minutes of torturous pain emanating from his lungs and stomach, Wolverine slashes a hole through the door with his adamantium claws, thus freeing him of the death trap.  Another minute is all he needs for the poison to be neutralized and the pain to subside.  His body has completely fought off both the poison and the infectious disease.  How is this possible?  What needs to happen in the real world for an individual to survive that kind of situation?  Let’s find out:

Poisons and toxins vary from the kinds that erode bio-matter, to those that block, or shut down integral cellular functions, forcing the cell to become incapacitated.  It is possible to partially explain the counteraction of poison using the hyper-mitosis hypothesis, where the cells just keep dividing until the entire toxin or poison is used up.  Once there is no more poison or antigen, the body can return to its normal state.  But what about the toxins that act as blockers?  Think about normal body functions using the metaphor of a lock and key: To work properly, much of the time the body needs the correct protein to “unlock” certain necessary mechanism.  If the lock is jimmied or jammed with a false key (or blocker), than the body ceases to function properly.  In this situation the toxin isn’t destroying any cell structures that can be replaced, it is simply blocking them.  Would Wolverine’s body react by creating more “keyholes”, or would it (more likely) develop antibodies that can degrade and destroy these false blockers?  If we were to take this to a macro level, imagine blocking Wolverine’s mouth and nose with a rag.  Wolverine’s body doesn’t respond by creating another mouth or nose for him to breathe out of; instead, he might tear at the cloth until it is sufficiently destroyed.  This line of reasoning would suggest that Wolverine has, within his immune system, a fast-acting counteragent for every kind of toxin or poison out there.  In the real world, we cannot hope to have such an immune system.  We discover new pathogens and deadly organisms every day that our bodies cannot hope to counteract.  Yes, we have developed many vaccines over the decades that have made us immune to some of the deadlier forces of nature, and yes, if we act quickly, we can counteract many forms of venom by injecting anti-venom serums into our bodies (or we simply pump our stomachs and hope for the best).

A normal human’s immune system takes anywhere from 5 days to many weeks to aptly respond to foreign bodies.  By the time the immune system recognizes the foreign body and makes the proper antibodies, the person might already be in serious trouble.  Wolverine’s immune system would not only need to recognize foreign bodies really quickly, but it would need to replicate the proper amount of antibodies almost instantaneously!  Such antibodies would also need to circulate through the body at an incredible rate, and they would have to be attracted to their prey.

Again, it is possible that Wolverine is a man outside of time’s restrictions.  Maybe his immune system is incredibly fast-acting, while his cell reproductive capacity is flawless.

Now, let us look at real world solutions:

In an article written in the Technology Review in April 2011[1], researchers were said to be working on certain enzymes that might help to speed up the process of healing, even in wounds caused by chronic illnesses.  They have focused their studies on blood vessel growth.  One researcher states, “If you can’t build new blood vessels, it’s virtually impossible to heal.”  Thus far, they are only in the preliminary stages, and no significant progress has been made.

Theoretically, by eating certain foods (mainly sugars, minerals, and proteins) one can boost and speed up the healing process.  Also, exercising and keeping in good shape will strengthen the immune system.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a chemical, genetic, or structural method of mimicking Wolverine’s amazing power… not yet, anyway.


[1] Sited on October 20, 12, from http://www.technologyreview.com/news/423635/speeding-up-the-healing-process/ The article was written by Courtney Humphries on April 13, 2011