A "Holy Grail" Of Healing

A new generation of researchers is changing the way we heal, one cell at a time. This is the second in a CBS News series on the innovative field of regenerative medicine.



You might become a believer in the power of magic dust, when you see how a special powder re-grew the tip of Lee Spievack's finger.

He sliced off a half inch of his finger in the propeller of a hobby shop airplane. His finger never even formed a scar.

"Your finger grew back flesh, blood, vessels and nail?" CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports.

"Four weeks," Spievak said.

Is this essentially what re-grew Spievak's finger.

This powder is a medical product called extracellular matrix. Made from pig bladders, it is a mix of protein and connective tissue surgeons often use to repair tendons.

But it's the matrix's unusual power to regenerate tissue that's helping launch a new field: regenerative medicine.

"It tells the body, start that process of tissue re-growth," said Dr. Stephen Badylak of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Regenerative Medicine.

Badylak believes the matrix somehow mobilizes cells, some of them adult stem cells whose job it is to maintain and repair injured tissue.

"It will change the body from thinking that its responding to inflammation and injury to thinking that it needs to re-grow normal tissue," Badylak said.

If this helped Mr Spievak's finger re-grow, could you grow a whole limb?

"In theory," Badylak said.

That theory, that it might be possible to re-grow a limb, is about to be tested by the United States Military. The Army, working in conjuction with the University of Pittsburgh, is about to use that matrix on the amputated fingers of soldiers home from the war.

Dr. Steven Wolf, at the Army Institute of Surgical Research, says the military has invested millions of dollars in Regenerative research, hoping to re-grow limbs, lost muscle, even burned skin.

"And it's hard to ignore this guys missing half his skin, this guy's missing his leg," Wolf said. "Is there any way we can make that grow back? Some of that technology exists and now its time to field it."

Several different technologies for harnessing regeneration are now in clinical trials around the world. One machine, being tested in Germany, sprays a burn patient's own cells onto a burn, signaling the skin to re-grow.

Badylak is about to implant matrix material - shaped like an esophagus - into patients with throat cancer.

Read more about organ regeneration in Part I of the series
"We fully expect that this material will cause the body to re-form normal esophageal tissue," Badylak said.

Some of the most advanced tests involve the heart. This patch of material is being put on - like a band aid - to regenerate heart muscle damaged by a heart attack.

And patient Mary Beth Babo is getting her own adult stem cells injected into her heart, in hopes of growing new arteries. Her surgeon is Dr. Joon Lee.

"It's what we consider the Holy Grail of our field for coronary heart disease," Lee said.

The Holy Grail, because if stem cells can re-grow arteries, there's less need for surgery.

"If people don't have to go through that, this would be the way to go for sure," Babo said.

Lee Spievak jokes he's got a 69-year-old body and a two-year-old fingertip.

But his fingertip has researchers imagining a time when re-grown limbs replace prosthetics, when re-grown tissues replace surgery, when the body does its healing with its own cells from within.
  • Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.

Comments

Follow Us

On Twitter