Thousands of soldiers have suffered major muscle loss in the field of duty throughout the ages. In fact, 50% of injuries in Iraq and Alfganistan have resulted in devastating tissue damage, with soldiers having to endure a life of chronic pain and disability with amputation the only answer – until now. A Pentagon backed research project based out of the University of Pittsburgh has made rapid progress in developing a technique to re-grow muscle tissue using pig’s bladders. Yes, you’re not going mad, you did read that correctly – this is literally life-enhancing pork!
The research facility has already successfully operated on four soldiers and are now training groups of surgeons across America with the hope that when the trial period finishes in 24 months, the technique will become standard practice for trauma victims.
Stephen Badylak, Professor at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Surgery and Director of the Center for Pre-Clinical Tissue Engineering within the Institute says the research is far from science fiction, and is on it’s way to becoming a reality.
“Starfish, salamanders, and newts can regrow a lost limb. Human fetuses can also regenerate many structures during the early stages of fetal development. But that ability diminishes or disappears by the time we’re born,” Badylak explains. “The question is why, because the information is still there in our DNA. We want to resurrect fetal wound healing.”
In practice the treatment could not only be used for soldiers who have experienced injuries in the field, but the everyday Joe Bloggs who has experienced a road accident, or any other form of tragic injury that has resulted in muscle loss. Badylak’s research is one part of the Pentagon’s Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine’s (AFIRM) $250 million funding into regenerative medicine. Results in other areas are already looking promising with clinical trials for “bone cement” to replace metal screws, as well as the advancement in face and hand transplants.
Badylak created a stir in 2007 when he announced the successful growth of fingertips using the extracellular matrix (ECM) from a pig’s bladder, but he explains that this cannot now be proved to be down to their research: “The tips of fingers sometimes regrow anyway, especially in children, so we can’t prove this was because of our work. You would need a clinical trial.”
However the method behind growing muscle is similar with surgeons implanting an extracellular matrix, a type of “cell glue” which includes the growth proteins from the cells of the pig bladder. These proteins tell the body’s own stem cells to gather around the effected area and initiate the process of tissue growth. When followed by an intense rehabilitation program the human body should be able to restore not just basic muscle tissue, but the tendons and nerves that are necessary for it to function.
“There are a number of approaches to regenerative medicine. But the one I’ve been working with involves harvesting the extracellular matrix (ECM) from a pig bladder or intestine and placing it at the wound site, Badylak explains. “If you take the bladder or small intestine and scrape away all the cells, what you’re left with is structural tissue like collagen and functional molecules such as growth factors. There are literally hundreds of these proteins, all housed in the ECM. They instruct cells on how to behave—whether to multiply or migrate or differentiate into different types of cells. They tell cells at the site of a wound what to do. Equally important, they recruit cells to the wound site that wouldn’t normally be there, such as stem cells. I wouldn’t be smart enough to put them all together, but I can harvest what nature has done.”
The real scientific breakthrough in the research is how the tissue from a pig’s small intestine communicates to the human cell. “Certain things are so important to mammalian survival that they are conserved across species,” says Badylak. “The amino acid sequences are either identical or else so close to those in humans that they deliver the same message. Simply placing the ECM at the site might get cells interested. But if you don’t recreate the micro-environment needed for tissue growth, it won’t happen. That means you need the right pH, oxygen, moisture, and nutrients. You also have to apply the correct mechanical forces. An Achilles tendon, for example, has to bear weight. Without those signals, it will turn into loose connective tissue.”
In order for soldiers effected to re-grow the large proportion of their muscle the re-hab must be followed rigidly, but the results are looking good with the first soldier to use the treatment successfully regrowing the upper portion of muscle in his leg.
Twenty-five-year-old Marine Corporal Isaisas Hernandez of San Antonio Texas was in Iraq’s dangerous province of Al-Anbar in 2004, when he was struck by a mortar carrying a TV set from a base store to his truck, with the explosion killing a man next to him. The shrapnel sliced through his legs leaving Hernandez with severe muscle loss. However in 2008 he volunteered to be the first soldier in the pig cell research, and the results have been impressive, with the soldier currently re-training to return to the marines.
“A soldier in Texas had been injured by an explosive device in Afghanistan and lost a large portion of muscle in the upper portion of his leg,” Badylak says. “This loss significantly compromised his strength and range of motion and his ability to engage in normal activities. We helped regenerate a portion of that muscle, which is amazing. That never happens spontaneously.”
The research is proving that pigs could help give soldiers a new lease of life, just ask Hernandez, who is playing sports, and considering a return to the marines. “It feels pretty good,” Hernandez told Discovery News. “I’ve been losing weight and playing sports.” The research facility are looking for more recruits, in time, the scientific technique could help not just more soldiers, but thousands who are suffering discomfort from muscle loss.