Parts Replacement Department

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.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I’m a witness to the miracle use of alloderm, link below. They used this on my husband to close a hole his throat. You know the rest of the story, Fred, I want go into now. The only other option was extensive plastic surgery with no promise of success. We will see you and Ann soon.