Miracle Powder Regrows Fingers, Now Thigh Muscle for Marine

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A substance extracted from pigs has allowed Marine Corporal Isaias Hernandez to regain much of the muscle he lost to a mortar explosion while serving in Afghanistan.

It was only a year ago that ACell's "miracle powder" was sprinkled on amputated fingers and shown to stimulate the regeneration of fingertips. The world was both awed and skeptical of the powder's regenerative power, touting that it would revolutionize regenerative medicine or calling it was quack science.

A fingertip is one thing. A thigh, quite another.

After losing most of his thigh muscle in a battlefield explosion, one marine was given a second chance when another such miracle powder caused much of his thigh to grow back. It's not only a wonderful feel-good story, but demonstrating that the same substance can grow back different tissues suggests that we may have only seen a small part of its full regenerative potential.

October 12, 2004, Afghanistan

At the time the mortar exploded, U.S. Marine Corporal Isaias Hernandez and his companion were working to repair a truck. If he hadn’t been carrying a television at that moment he, like his companion, would have been killed. The TV absorbed most of the shrapnel, but what it missed tore through Hernandez’s arms and legs. His right thigh got the worst of it: 70 percent of its muscle was sheered off and the femur was fractured. For the next four years the Corporal underwent multiple surgeries and constant physical therapy, but his leg wasn’t getting stronger. His only option was amputation, as is the fate of the vast majority of limbs with severe muscle damage.

Enter Dr. Stephen Badylak, Director of Tissue Engineering at the University of Pittsburg’s McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Dr. Badylak and colleagues offered Corporal Hernandez an alternative to amputation: regrow the muscle. The key to this seemingly miraculous procedure is a material obtained from pig bladders. As the material’s name, the extracellular matrix implies, it is the mix of chemicals that fills the space surrounding the body’s cells. It’s a complex mixture of hormones, structural proteins, and other molecules that maintain the health and function of the cells, as well as mediates cell-to-cell communication. It also guides tissue growth. Following an intense physical therapy program to strengthen the 30 percent of muscle he had left, doctors made an incision deep into Hernandez’s thigh and applied the extracellular matrix. Instead of a powder like ACell's, Dr. Badylak's group turned the material into a gel form. "You can't use a powder to replace a tendon," remarked Dr. Badylak. It went to work, spurring not only the growth of muscle tissue but tendons, as he mentioned, and the proper vasculature as well. About six weeks after the surgery the Marine began to feel his strength returning. What’s more, he saw muscle bulking up in the area that the extracellular matrix had been applied. “I used to have a hard time walking and going up and down stairs,” he told Purdue alumnus magazine in a feature story on star alum Dr. Badylak. “I can pretty much walk and do stairs fine now.”

After more than a decade since Dr. Badylak first treated a patient with the extracellular matrix material he still doesn’t quite know how it does what it does. A few things researchers do know: the extracellular matrix becomes part of the tissue it is placed into; as part of the tissue it can grow and heal; it somehow recruits the body’s own stem cells to its location; and it changes the body’s immune response from attacking to “constructive remodeling.”

The decision to use extracellular matrix from pig bladders was not a scientific one, but an economic one. Pig parts were in abundance in butcher-happy Indiana near Purdue University where Dr. Badylak first began the research.

Pig extracellular matrix does more than just regrow thigh muscle. ACell's remarkable MatriStem powder has been used to regrow fingers.

The fact that the extracellular matrix recruits the body’s own stem cells is huge because it obviates the need to introduce stem cells from an outside source. As we’ve discussed before, even genetically-identical cells derived from the patient can be problematic. Reprogramming skin cells, for instance, into heart cells requires significant molecular manipulation, and these manipulations can lead to side effects such as rejection or cancer. The fact that the extracellular matrix puts the body’s own stem cells to work is simpler and safer. It may also get Dr. Badylak’s treatment into clinics sooner. “It...simplifies treatment because it’s much easier to get FDA approval with stem cell research when you don’t have to harvest them,” he told Purdue alumnus.

As Dr. Badylak and his colleagues know, every little bit helps. Their ‘MiracleGro For Muscles’ wasn’t always seen as such. Even after years of watching the extracellular matrix successfully morph into whatever tissue it was inserted into–from nerve cells to muscle and bone–the research stubbornly refused to get funded. As Dr. Badylak told the Purdue alumnus, “Nobody thought it was worth funding because it was such a crazy idea. Why would anyone want to put pig tissue in a human?” But profit-minded entrepreneurialism saved the day from pundit-advised conservatism. Eli Lilly and Co. and DuPuy, an orthopedic company in Indiana, put real money into the idea. With the help of drug company coffers Dr. Badylak’s research took off and eventually Washington came aboard. The current study that gave Corporal Hernandez much of his thigh back is a trial in collaboration with the U.S. government. As part of a $70 million government program for regenerative medicine, it’s hoped that Hernandez’s will be the first of many such success stories.

Given that the U.S. is currently fighting two wars, the victory for regenerative medicine couldn’t have come at a better time. “I get six to eight emails a day (from potential patients),” Dr. Badylak said in December of last year, long before news of Corporal Hernandez’s regrown thigh. Let’s hope that this treatment makes it to the clinic soon, so that Dr. Badylak can answer not only their emails, but their prayers as well.

[image credits: dailymail.co.uk, Acell]
image 1: Hernandez
image 2: Acell

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 15 Responses

  • Bill July 13, 2011 on 7:37 am

    I wonder if this procedure could be used to augment muscles. (putting aside the advisability of doing so)

  • Sambo July 17, 2011 on 10:50 pm

    This article blew my mind! Amazing stuff!

  • vinodmrec December 14, 2013 on 5:38 am

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  • Spensa February 3, 2014 on 8:17 pm

    So this begs the question… Does the tissue grow back younger? If an elderly person’s finger was regenerated in this way, is his/her finger now youthful or old. I could see all body parts internal and exernal being systematically damaged and regrown for extended youth be it for health or beauty.

  • Kazem Sa December 5, 2014 on 11:33 am

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  • Kazem Sa December 8, 2014 on 7:30 am

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  • Welcum Bulls February 23, 2015 on 2:08 am

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  • Welcum Bulls February 23, 2015 on 2:09 am

    …please reply…

  • Goran Radosavljevic August 10, 2015 on 2:12 am

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  • ชิต ชิต September 11, 2015 on 6:59 am

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  • vr October 10, 2015 on 3:25 pm

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    • mkarbas vr October 26, 2015 on 5:30 am

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    • mkarbas vr October 26, 2015 on 5:32 am

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  • Richard Bryant June 1, 2016 on 5:52 pm

    Ths story is 100% accurate. My nephey sawed off two fingertips accidentally at a construction site a couple of years ago, and using this treatment he recovered fully. His fingers are now fully restored and he plays the guitar.

    • Richard Bryant Richard Bryant June 1, 2016 on 5:52 pm