Warning: May Contain Piggies

Is that what Time Lords do? Lop a bit off, grow another one? ~Donna Noble

There have been some truly remarkable strides made in the field of regenerative medicine, along with some almost unbelievable stories of a simple powder working magic on the human body.

Like the story of Lee Spievack, owner of a hobby shop who, in 2005, sliced off the tip of his finger with a model plane motor (amusingly enough, he managed this while showing a customer why the motor was dangerous- possibly the most effective demonstration he could have given, no?). Spievack went to the emergency room without the missing tip, prompting the doctors to bandage him up and suggest a skin graft to cover the top of the shortened digit, seeing as there was nothing they could do to rebuild the missing part.

Fuck that. Spievack instead turned to his brother, Alan, a medical research scientist. Alan took one look at Spievack’s chopped up digit and tossed him a bottle of mysterious powder. Spievack screamed when the bottle bounced off his bandaged hand, retrieving it from the floor with much sniveling. Alan told him to man the fuck up and put the powder on his finger. “But why does it smell like ham?” Spievack spluttered, dumping the talc-y substance all over the wound, coating it like that Shake ‘n Bake kid coats chicken.

Yes, I like to imagine it happened just like that.

Anyway, just four weeks later, the entire fingertip had grown back- tissue, nerves, skin, fingernail and all.

BUT HOW CAN THIS BE?!?!?!

Come, galleons. Let’s find out.

***

The extracellular matrix is a mixture of protein and connective tissue that operates outside of the body’s cells (thus the name). In human fetuses, the extracellular matrix works in conjunction with stem cells to grow, well, everything. In fact, if anything gets damaged in the womb, the extracellular matrix is there to help get those stem cells in regrowth mode. Fetuses can basically regrow anything damaged in the womb (unless hindered by genetic disorders or extreme outside influences).

But if this magic substance works in the womb, why doesn’t it keep growing bits back after birth? Scientists have long believed that the extracellular matrix ceases functioning once a fetus is fully developed.

Enter the pig.

I loveded you, Piggy. I LOVEDED YOU.

Using a powdered form of extracellular matrix taken from pig bladders, we’ve long been healing torn ligaments in horses and even healing ulcers in humans. But now we have evidence that this powder can jump-start regenerative properties in humans (on fingertips, for example), and the world of regenerative medicine is studying it intensively.

And they still really don’t know exactly how the extracellular matrix works its magic, but they’re getting closer. Here’s what we do know:

When the human body gets injured, cells at the injury site die. These dead cells enter the surrounding tissue, which pisses off the immune system. The immune system, sensing a foreign body, reacts with inflammation and scarring. The scar tissue prevents future cellular development in the area, which is why scars last- cells can no longer repair that bit of skin.

Sprinkle some extracellular matrix on the area, however, and something very different happens. When the piggy extract enters surrounding tissue, it causes those cells to start repairing the damage- the same thing that happens in developing fetuses. New, healthy tissue is created, not scar tissue. There is no immune system response.

Basically, the extracellular matrix is calling in pluripotent stem cells, which then divide and differentiate to rebuild any type of damaged/missing tissue. But exactly how this extracellular matrix does this isn’t known. Scientists speculate that the extracellular matrix contains a chemoattractant that calls in these stem cells from other regions of the body (humans have a very limited supply of stem cells in hair follicles and bone marrow) or else dedifferentiates somatic cells at the injury site. But that’s all it is- speculation. It will require further testing to discover exactly what the extracellular matrix is doing at the injury site.

***

Spievack’s story is not the only such account of extracellular matrix having a remarkable impact on tissue regeneration. In 2010, a University of Pittsburgh study was released regarding extracellular matrix and mice.

Dr. Stephen Badylak led the team that used the powdered extracellular matrix on mice with amputated toes. Two groups of mice were used, all having the second phalange of the third toe of the hind-paw amputated. One group had the injury site treated with the piggy powder, while the other group was left alone as a control group. Two weeks after the amputation, the mice in the first group showed stem cells being recruited to the injury, with the stem cells differentiating into nerve cells and muscle/connective tissue. While the mice only partially regrew the missing digit, the control mice didn’t even get that much. And it was certainly a startling step forward in the field of regenerative medicine.

And mice aren’t the only ones. The United States military has been keen to get in on the regenerative medicine scene, with the government pouring $70 million into this research. In 2007, scientists at a military base in Texas started treating Iraq War vets whose hands were damaged in the war. By re-opening the wounds and applying the matrix, they’ve been regrowing some of the missing fingers. Not the entire digit, mind you, but enough for some basic mobility.

Just this year, Marine Corporal Isaias Hernandez, who lost 70% of his right thigh muscle in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, decided to undergo experimental regenerative therapy instead of amputating the limb. After Hernandez underwent a fitness regime to build the remaining muscle, surgeons cut his thigh open and inserted some of that delicious extracellular matrix into the site of the initial injury. After just a few weeks, Hernandez found his leg growing in bulk and strength.

While this treatment currently yields about a 12-15% increase in muscle mass and strength, it’s certainly a signal that this therapy, once fully studied, understood, and fine-tuned, could do some truly incredible things.

***

There are still some big questions out there. Can we hone this procedure to eventually regrow entire digits and/or limbs? Or, better, yet…

Could we use knowledge gained from studying the piggy matrix to actually trigger the human extracellular matrix to do what it does in the womb? Could we prod our own bodies into regeneration?

It’s not as if regeneration in the animal world doesn’t exist. Salamanders can regrow missing limbs, after all. And deer regrow their antlers, which are composed of bone, tissue, cartilage, and skin — the same things that make up human limbs. Perhaps we could trigger our extracellular matrix to allow us to do similar miraculous things.

I’d say it’s certainly worth further research.

***

I would also like to point out that, just this summer, a study was published describing a protocol for isolating human extracellular matrix in male foreskin.

That shit is just useful as hell, isn’t it?

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