"I would imagine when people ask you what you do for a living, it's not the easiest thing in the world to explain," Safer asked Dr. Steven Badylak, the institute's deputy director.
"No, it's not. So, now, I just say we, I make body parts. It gets their attention," Dr. Badylak replied with a chuckle.
He and his team are convinced that the key to regeneration is finding the switch in our bodies that tells our cells to grow when we are still in the womb.
"The accepted wisdom is that we're born with what we have and that's it. You know, the body doesn't grow new parts," Safer remarked.
"Well the human body. 'Cause there certainly are examples of species that regrow their arms and legs like a newt or a salamander. But, as a human early enough in gestation, we can do the same things. We can regrow major body parts. Limbs even, if it's early enough," Badylak explained.
"In essence, is what you're doing trying to find the key to turning that process back on?" Safer asked.
"Yeah," Badylak said. "If we could make the body or at least the part of the body that's missing or injured think that it's an early fetus again. That's game set and match."
Badylak says he now has the material that might be a step towards that. It is called ECM (Extra Cellular Matrix), which he gets, from of all places, pig bladders.
Badylak told Safer ECM exists in all of us and in all species. "It's loaded with signals that instruct cells to do things, as well as serving as a structural support."
"And where do pig bladders come into it?" Safer asked.
"They are a convenient source because it's a throwaway product for the agricultural community. And so, we can get rid of the cells. And the remaining Extra Cellular Matrix is proven to be very instructive to the body," Badylak said.
Asked if humans are closely related to pigs, the doctor said, "Probably closer than we'd like to admit."
He says that ECM could regrow virtually every tissue in the body.
When doctors at the University of Pittsburgh were treating a patient with cancer of the esophagus who was too weak to face complicated surgery, they turned to Dr. Badylak and his ECM.
"Our therapy of choice right now is to remove the esophagus and pull the remaining stomach up through the chest and attach it to what's left in the throat," Badylak explained. "So, the treatment's as bad as the disease. So, what we have done is said, 'Can we take a regenerative medicine approach to allow surgeons and go in and just resect the cancer? And instruct the remaining esophagus to regrow itself as opposed to respond to injury and form a scar?'"