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Growing A New Thumb

Through the use of a process called "tissue engineering," medical history is about to be made. CBS New Health Correspondent Dr. Emily Senay says in doctors will attempt to regrow a missing bone, using the cells of a patient who lost a bone in an accident.

This is the first time ever that this has been done on a living human being.

Specifically, doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center are attempting to regenerate a missing bone in the thumb of Raul Murcia, a 37-year-old factory worker from Framingham, Mass. He lost the distal bone (the end bone) in his left thumb during an industrial accident with a hydraulic lift.

It was a clean break; doctors were able to save most of the skin, but the bone was gone. In the emergency room, doctors recovered cells from his bone, which they are harvesting in a lab as part of a tissue-engineered bone replacement.

Because of the nature of the break, doctors will "smear" a coral platform on the end of the remaining bone in his thumb. That "smear" will eventually generate a new bone which will be in the shape of the missing bone. The coral allows the cells to grow and develop.

In six months or less, doctors will re-attach the ligaments and tendons in the thumb, and Murcia will have a fully functional replacement thumb - grown from his own tissue.

For now, he's got a thumb with a large flap of skin at the end. He cannot really hold anything because it's soft. The new bone will allow him to regain use of his thumb.

Dr. Charles A. Vacanti is the lead physician on this project. He has succesfully grown ears in a petry dish, all from tissue. None of these ears have been used on humans. However, Dr. Vacanti has grown an ear on the back of a mouse.

Dr. Vacanti says, "The ultimate goal for the patient is to have normal function in his be able to use his thumb in his work...and in daily activities."

Although skin and cartilage has been regenerated in the past, Dr. Senay reports, this latest procedure is considered significant because the bone is involved. If the procedure proves successful, doctors will be able to more effectively treat people who suffer an injury to a bone or have a tumor in a bone.

Dr. Vacanti says they eventually hope to grow kidneys, livers, and even the pancreas. But those developments are many years down the road.

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