This summer, scientists are planning to see whether the powdered pig extract can help injured soldiers regrow parts of their fingers. And a large federally funded project is trying to unlock the secrets of how some animals regrow body parts so well, with hopes of applying the the lessons to humans.
Up to about age 2, people can consistently regrow fingertips, says Dr. Stephen Badylak, a regeneration expert at the University of Pittsburgh. But that’s rare in adults, he said. A former Harvard surgeon founded a company called ACell Inc., that makes an extract of pig bladder for promoting healing and tissue regeneration. It helps horses regrow ligaments, for example, and the federal government has given clearance to market it for use in people. Similar formulations have been used in many people to do things like treat ulcers and other wounds and help make cartilage.
Lee Spievack took his brother’s advice to forget about a skin graft and try the pig powder.
Soon a shipment of the stuff arrived and Lee Spievack started applying it every two days. Within four weeks his finger had regained its original length, he says, and in four months “it looked like my normal finger.”
Spievack said it’s a little hard, as if calloused, and there’s a slight scar on the end. The nail continues to grow at twice the speed of his other nails.
“All my fingers in this cold weather have cracked except that one,” he said.
All in all, he said, “I’m quite impressed.”
None of this proves the powder was responsible. But those outcomes have helped inspire an effort to try the powder this summer at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, on soldiers who have far more disabling finger loss because of burns. The soldiers will have the end of a finger stub re-opened surgically, with the powder applied three times a week.