New Technology May Help Iraq Vets Regrow Limbs

We all know that animals such as salamanders and newts can regrow body parts, but humans? An experimental technology using extracellular matrix—a fine powder derived from pig bladders—may lead to just that.

Thus far, the growth has been limited to soft tissue and blood vessels, and the only human test was on a doctor’s brother who had (conveniently) chopped off 3/8 of an inch of the top of a finger. By using extracellular matrix, the missing part regrew in just four months. Except for a scar, “it was like the finger I always had,” he said.

Less than half an inch of finger may not sound like a lot, but for the five Iraq vets testing the technology at a center in Texas it may mean the difference between fumbling for a pencil (or a fork, a hammer, etc.) and being able to pick it up. And as amputations are a key injury in this war, scientists are hoping that the new technology may one day lead to full limb regeneration. Stem cells are of course an important part of this debate. “Fetuses can regenerate just about everything,” a scientist involved in the extracellular matrix therapy said. Most recently, human stem cells implanted in rats’ damaged spinal cords reproduced and fused with the rats’ nervous systems to repair function. This gives hope that paralyzed GIs may one day be able to regain at least some of their mobility instead of having to rely on expensive prosthesis.

With all the potential of biotechnological help for vets, why is Bush not behind stem cell technology? Bush says he won’t allow the intentional destruction of human embryos, but he seems perfectly happy to witness the mental and physical destruction of the nation’s young men and women. Bush’s opposition to stem cells is not just hurting those injured today, but may actually be keeping researchers from helping others down the line.

—Jen Phillips