Did this man grow a new finger? Lee Spievak, who was 69 at the time, claims that in 2008 he was able to regrow the end of his own finger after it was lost in an accident. The finger was caught in the propeller of a model plane, and Spievak could not find the half-an-inch that was chopped off, making surgery impossible.
But the man did not give up on getting his finger back. His brother Alan, who works in the field of regenerative medicine, sent him a powder, which Spievak calls “pixie dust,” and like “magic,” and in just four months, the finger grew back perfectly normal skin tissue, nerves, and nail. But there is nothing magical about it.
What did Alan send him?
The powder is called extra cellular matrix (ECM) and is made from cells of the linings of a pig’s bladder. The powder’s creator Dr. Stephen Badylak from the University of Pittsburgh, claims that this new medicine will be able to repair burnt skin, and even damaged organs. He and other scientists believe that the powder stimulates the cells to grow new tissue instead of scarring over.
“I think that within ten years that we will have strategies that will re-grow the bones, and promote the growth of functional tissue around those bones. And that is a major step towards eventually doing the entire limb,” Dr. Badylak said.
This has been almost ten years ago, so what is going on in this field of medicine?
The U.S. Army Has Researched “Pixie Dust” for Injured Soldiers
Since 2008, the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research has been using this regenerative powder in order to try regrowing skin tissue in soldiers who have missing extremities, according to the U.S. Army.
“The powder is FDA approved and is already being used for hernia repairs and other applications,” said Dr. Steven Wolf.
In theory, when the powder is applied, it stimulates the cells to become the nearby tissues, be that a bone, or a blood vessel, or a nerve.
They relate the process to that of a salamander re-growing its tail.
“You pull a tail off a salamander and it regrows. The end of the tail forms what is called a blastema, and that blastema elongates. We think that’s what happens when we put this powder on,” Wolf said.
Wolf said the human also already knows the process from the time we are in our mother’s womb.
“The code is there, the DNA is there. What we’re trying to do is trick your body into doing that again,” Wolf said.
The Army’s very first case in 2008 of a man with a missing finger was partially successful. They managed to regrow a part of the finger but the wound closed too soon to continue the process, the U.S. Army reported.
“Pixie Dust” Re-Grew Man’s A Cancer-Free Healthy Organ
Mike Wright says that Dr. Badylak saved his life. After struggling with acid reflux and a hiatal hernia (a condition in which part of the stomach pushes into the diaphragm) for years, Mike was diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus in 2000 (a type of gastroesophageal reflux disease), which could lead to cancer. No doctor had been giving him any hope, until he came across the research of Dr. Badylak. After consulting him and other doctors, Mike went into surgery, during which the cancerous layer of his esophagus or food pipe was replaced with sheets of ECM powder.
In the next few months, Wright’s esophagus has grown healthy tissue.
“I am 100% cancer-free and I’ve got a whole new esophagus,” Wright told the Purdue Alumnus publication.
The Future of Re-Growing Organs
In the 10 years of ECM’s existence, there have been few experiments with applying it to redrawing organ tissue in humans. But those few have been partially or fully successful.
Still, it might take a much longer time for treatments like this to be fully studied and readily available for the public.
One of the common obstacles is getting enough funding for research, regulations and controversies surrounding stem-cell research.
However, these are the first examples we see of what kind of medical treatment we might have access to in the future.
Wright has a lot of hope for this treatment, “They are going to be saving thousands of people…what they did to me is going to be commonplace.”
Listen to Dr. Badylak speak of regenerative medicine strategies: