The tantalizing prospect of regrowing tissue using Badylak’s technique first made headlines in 2007, when he announced the successful regrowth of a small portion of fingertip using a concoction based on cells derived from a pig’s bladder. His approach with muscle tissue is similar: Surgeons start by implanting what’s called an extracellular matrix, a sort of “cellular glue,” whose key components are growth factor proteins from pig bladders. Those proteins trigger the body’s own stem cells to flock to the area and initiate the process of tissue growth and wound repair — which adult muscles normally wouldn’t do. Combined with an intensive rehab program to essentially “exercise” the nascent muscle, the body is able to restore not only basic muscle tissue, but the tendons and nerves that are necessary for function.
“The patient needs to do their part, and that involves a lot of work — we aren’t just putting a cast on the leg and waiting,” Badylak said. “But these soldiers coming in with 60, 70 percent muscle loss, they’ll do anything to get their lives back.”
Now, only four years after Badylak’s fingertip achievement suggested his technique could restore lost tissue, his team is celebrating a notable milestone: The first patient enrolled in their trial, a veteran who lost the majority of the anterior tibial muscle in his lower leg during an IED attack, has today graduated from the requisite six-month rehabilitation program that follows surgery. “He’s doing great,” Badylak says of the unnamed patient, who has yet to be identified.