Today, as president and CEO of Ontogeny, Inc., an innovative biotechnology company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Platika now ponders that boyhood puzzle using high-tech tools. His firm does scientific research on how to preserve the human body from aging and decay, as well as how to stimulate its natural capacities for regeneration. Founded in 1994, Ontogeny pursues a research agenda that is rare in the biotechnology industry--developmental biology, the study of the molecular mechanisms that shape embryonic development.
"The same molecules that control the differentiation of cells and build organ systems in the embryo--called inducing molecules--can also activate processes of repair and regeneration in an adult," says Platika. "The body can't afford to have two different mechanisms--you would need too many genes to have one set of mechanisms for repairing broken bones, and another set for building up new ones." But with age, the regenerative mechanism seems to become less effective. Platika compares it to memory: "As we age, it's not that we don't form memory--it's just harder to retrieve the memory we form." Similarly, for rejuvenating tissues, he says, "The whole blueprint is there, waiting to be turned on."
Thus the adult body may need to relearn secrets it knew in the womb. Humans begin as a single cell--a fertilized ovum--but during prenatal life that unity differentiates itself into all the anatomical structures and organ systems that compose the mature organism. Inducing molecules control this process, ensuring, for example, that "you don't build the whole body as a liver," says a laughing Platika. These molecules are potent secreted proteins that act on the cell surface; scientists speculate that approximately 100 inducing molecules exist, grouped in about 15 families. Less than half have been identified.
"There are two ways to find them," Platika explains. "One is differential display--you compare normal bone with broken bone, and look for differences in the molecules present, to see which ones are responsible for rebuilding the bone. The problem is that many other molecules are turned on by that damage, and the inducing molecules are only there a very short time--they trigger a cascade of other molecules, then disappear. Everything you see could be simply a response to the trigger event. Studying them this way is like fishing in an ocean.