Human muscle, regrown on animal scaffolding
September 17, 2012
Sergeant Strang has grown new leg muscle thanks to a thin sheet of material from a pig, The New York Times reports.
The material, called extracellular matrix, is the natural scaffolding that underlies all tissues and organs, in people as well as animals. It is produced by cells, and for years scientists thought that its main role was to hold them in their proper position.
But researchers now know that this scaffolding also signals the body to grow and repair those tissues and organs. Armed with that knowledge, the new body builders are using this material from pigs and other animals to engineer the growth of replacement tissue in humans.
Dr. Peter Rubin, a plastic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who is a leader of the study, said that early results with Sergeant Strang and a handful of other patients showed that the animal scaffolding was spurring muscle growth. “We are seeing evidence of remodeling of tissues,” he said.
Last fall, Dr. Rubin cut out the scar tissue from Sergeant Strang’s leg and stitched a sheet resembling a thick piece of parchment paper — extracellular matrix from a pig urinary bladder, which had shown excellent results in lab studies — into the remaining healthy thigh muscle.
His body immediately started breaking down the matrix, which consists largely of collagen and other proteins. But the doctors expected, and wanted, that to happen — by degrading into smaller compounds, the matrix started the signaling process, recruiting stem cells to come to the site where they could become muscle cells.
“We’re trying to work with nature rather than fight nature,” said another leader of the study, Dr. Stephen Badylak, deputy director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the university.
The scaffolding is isolated by stripping out all of the living cells from a tissue or organ, leaving an intricate three-dimensional web of proteins and other compounds. Removing the cells eliminates the possibility that the material, of animal origin, will be rejected outright by the body when it is implanted. But the matrix does provoke a less intense immune response, Dr. Badylak said, which is necessary for it to work. “You actually need the immune system to recognize the material.”