I suppose it was in seeing salamander tails and legs grow back after being turtle-munched in a high school biology lab terrarium that I first became fascinated with the possibility of body part regeneration.
How does a mindless tissue know how to shape the part, where to put things like skin versus muscle, and how does it know when the tail or leg is big enough? Why doesn’t it just keep on growing or stop short?
I predicted twenty years ago (after reading Robert Becker’s Body Electric) that in my children’s lifetime, we would use what we would learn about electrical fields and life forces to regrow amputated fingers and toes–or more. What I didn’t figure into the mix was the regenerative potential recently discovered in the most uninteresting of human tissue elements that a college biology freshman is forced to view under the microscope: intercellular matrix. It is the amorphous thready goo that exists between the unique cells of all connective tissue.
But it turns out that this stuff just might be the miracle dust of fiction. The video on the CBS site that describes this research is recommended. This stuff is already in limited use.
That powder is a substance made from pig bladders called extracellular matrix. It is a mix of protein and connective tissue surgeons often use to repair tendons and it holds some of the secrets behind the emerging new science of regenerative medicine.
“It tells the body, start that process of tissue regrowth,” said Badylak.
Badlayk is one of the many scientists who now believe every tissue in the body has cells which are capable of regeneration. All scientists have to do is find enough of those cells and “direct” them to grow.
“Somehow the matrix summons the cells and tell them what to do,” Badylak explained. “It helps instruct them in terms of where they need to go, how they need to differentiate – should I become a blood vessel, a nerve, a muscle cell or whatever.”
Paradoxically, it may be support from the military (where there is a steady supply of missing body parts–including burned skin) that will carry this research forward.
Expect to hear a lot more about this before long. Who knows–it might even grow back that pinky finger your son will offer to the hobby shop scroll saw in 2015.